Published May 10, 2011
SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge on Tuesday blocked a Utah immigration law that would have allowed police to check the citizenship status of anyone they arrest, citing its similarities to the most controversial parts of an Arizona law that seems bound for the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups issued his ruling in Salt Lake City just 14 hours after the law went into effect, saying that there is sufficient evidence that at least some portions of the Utah legislation will be found unconstitutional.
The Utah law, signed by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert in March, would require police to check the citizenship status of anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony or class-A misdemeanor, while giving officers discretion to check the citizenship of those stopped for traffic infractions and other lesser offenses. Class A misdemeanors include theft, negligent homicide and criminal mischief, while felonies range from aggravated burglary to rape and murder.
The American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigration Law Center last week sued to stop the implementation of House Bill 497, saying it could lead to racial profiling. The civil rights groups submitted hundreds of pages of evidence and affidavits to prove their claims ahead of Tuesday's hearing.
Utah Assistant Attorney General Jerrold Jensen said the ruling was "not a surprise."
Jansen said after the hearing that the law is "fully constitutional" and that his office plans to "argue it vigorously."
Utah's law is significantly different from Arizona's because it doesn't allow police to check the status of every person they encounter, Jansen said in court.
"They want to try the Arizona law, and they make allegations against Utah that may well have applied to Arizona," Jensen said. "But just because the Arizona law is unconstitutional doesn't mean the Utah law is unconstitutional."
The next hearing on is set for July 14, where both sides will be expected to argue whether the law is constitutional. Waddoups could then decide whether to allow the law to go into effect or overturn it because of constitutional issues. If he overturned it, the measure's fate could depend on the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion on the Arizona law.
Waddoups' decision comes a day after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer announced a plan to ask the nation's high court to overturn a ruling that put her state's immigration enforcement law on hold.
The state must file the appeal by a July 11 deadline. The Supreme Court has discretion on whether to hear the case.
"It seems like this is a big enough national issue that it will ultimately be determined by the United States Supreme Court," said Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne on Monday.
In its April ruling, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the U.S. Justice Department is likely to prove the law is unconstitutional and succeed in its argument that Congress has given the federal government sole authority to enforce immigration laws.
Brewer's lawyers have argued the federal government hasn't effectively enforced immigration law at the border and in Arizona's interior and that the state's intent in passing the law was to assist federal authorities as Congress has encouraged.
The federal government argued the law intrudes on its exclusive authority to regulate immigration, disrupts relations between the U.S. and Mexico, hinders cooperation between state and federal officials, and burdens legal immigrants.
In a statement after the ruling, Herbert said he has told law enforcement officials the law is on hold but was confident the state would prevail.
"Utah's Attorney General and state Legislature worked hard to craft a bill that would withstand constitutional scrutiny," Herbert said in a statement after the ruling. "Utah will have ample opportunity in court to demonstrate this bill is on solid footing."
ACLU managing attorney Cecillia Wang said the law is potentially worse than the Arizona law because anyone stopped by police could be required to prove their citizenship status. Making it optional for lesser offenses makes racial profiling even more likely, she said.
"This violates the Constitutional right of every American," Wang said. "The times where officers have discretion are the vast number of times that people encounter police."
Police chiefs and county sheriffs have said very little will change in their handling of immigration laws. That was true on Tuesday -- for 14 hours, at least -- when no arrests were made based on the new law.
There has also been very little public outcry about the law, and no protests or rallies were reported Tuesday.
That is due in large part to the generally positive response from the public to the bipartisan immigration overhaul passed by the Legislature in March, said National Immigration Law Center managing attorney Karen Tumlin.
The package of reforms is based on compassion in immigration laws, and includes a guest worker program starting in 2013 to allow illegal immigrants to remain, live and work in the state, winning support from some liberal immigration advocates but has been criticized by opponents as an amnesty program.