The Supreme Court signaled Wednesday that it might uphold a key element of Arizona's immigration law, as justices across the board suggested the state has a serious problem on its hands and should have some level of sovereignty to address illegal immigration.
The justices appeared ready to allow a provision requiring police officers to check the immigration status of people they think are in the U.S. illegally.
The justices strongly suggested Wednesday they are not buying the Obama administration's argument that the state exceeded its authority, with Chief Justice John Roberts at one point saying he doesn't think the federal government even wants to know how many illegal immigrants are in the country.
"You can see it's not selling very well," Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Obama administration Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.
Just like the health care overhaul challenge heard earlier this month, Wednesday's hearing on the immigration law drew passionate surrogates from both sides. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was loudly booed by the law's opponents in front of the courthouse. She said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that "I am filled with optimism -- the kind that comes with knowing that Arizona's cause is just and its course is true."
While the justices addressed the traffic stop provision Wednesday, it was unclear what the court would do with other aspects of the law that have been put on hold by lower federal courts.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped draft the law, voiced optimism in Arizona's chances.
"This was a very good day for Arizona in the Supreme Court today," he told Fox News. "The U.S. Justice Department was on the ropes."
But Brent Wilkes, director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, warned that the law would take a "human toll" on Arizona families if allowed to stand.
"This is really a racial profiling bill," he told Fox News.
The hearing Wednesday morning has implications far beyond Arizona's borders, as several states, including Alabama and South Carolina, have followed in Arizona's footsteps to craft their own immigration enforcement measures.
The Obama administration, which opposes those measures, has argued that the country cannot sustain a patchwork of separate immigration laws.
Verrilli, who is arguing on behalf of the government, said in his brief that the Executive Branch has the power to enforce immigration policy.
"For each state, and each locality, to set its own immigration policy in that fashion would wholly subvert Congress' goal: a single, national approach," he wrote.
But Arizona argued that the current system is broken, and that the state is paying an unfair price for that failure.
"Arizona shoulders a disproportionate burden of the national problem of illegal immigration," attorney Paul Clement argued in his brief. He argued that enforcement attention in California and Texas has turned the Arizona border into a funnel for illegal immigrants, with a third of illegal border crossings occurring there.
The attorney described Arizona's law as a response to an "emergency situation" -- with illegal immigrants soaking up millions of state dollars in health care and education, posing safety risks to ranchers and cutting into the state's job market.
Two of the key statutes, which have been blocked and will be at issue in Wednesday's arguments, are provisions to bar illegal immigrants from seeking a job and to require law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally in the course of a routine stop.
A ruling from the Supreme Court is likely to come this summer, in the thick of the presidential election year -- it could either bolster what has been a bold move from the Obama administration's Justice Department to intervene in state issues ranging from immigration to voter ID laws, or stop the administration in its tracks and open the floodgates to even more state laws that challenge federal authority.
The immigration case arrives at the high court Wednesday just weeks after the justices heard arguments in the multi-state challenge to the federal health care overhaul.
Democrats on Capitol Hill this week were already scrambling to prepare for the possibility that the high court upholds the immigration law. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced a plan to introduce a bill that would effectively nullify Arizona's law -- though it would stand virtually no chance of passing in the Republican-controlled House.
"Immigration has not and never has been an area where states are able to exercise independent authority," Schumer said Tuesday at a Capitol Hill hearing, where he announced he would introduce the proposal should the Supreme Court "ignore" the "plain and unambiguous statements of congressional intent" and uphold the Arizona law.
But former Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, the author of the law, said: "We have a national crisis, and yet everyone wants to ignore that: the cost, the damage, the crime."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.