Arizona immigration case arrives at Supreme Court, again pits feds against state

For the second time in less than a month, the Supreme Court is taking up a case that puts the Obama administration's legal credibility on the line in a hot-button battle against state government.

The high court this Wednesday plans to hear oral arguments in the case of the 2010 Arizona immigration law. Lower courts have already halted key parts of that law, but all parties are looking to the nine Supreme Court justices for a final ruling.

The stand-off echoes the epic legal battle just weeks ago over the administration's health care overhaul. The same top lawyers in that case will be making an encore appearance Wednesday to argue on immigration -- with Solicitor General Donald Verrilli representing the federal government and former GOP solicitor general Paul Clement arguing on behalf of Arizona.

While Arizona is the only state involved in this week's case, the decision will have nationwide implications, just like the eventual ruling in the health care challenge. Several other states, including Georgia and Alabama, have followed Arizona's lead in implementing their own individually tailored immigration laws.

The immigration case also turns the tables, compared with the last legal battle. While states challenged the health care law on the grounds that it was a federal overreach, the Obama administration has challenged Arizona on the grounds that its immigration law was a flagrant state overreach.

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    "Congress vested the Executive Branch with the authority and the discretion to make sensitive judgments with respect to aliens," Verrilli argues in the government's brief. "The decision to admit, detain or remove a particular alien depends not only on resource constraints, but on numerous other considerations that call for a decisionmaker to exercise sound judgment on behalf of the nation as a whole, according to a single standard."

    Verrilli argues that Arizona tried to "interpose its own judgments on those sensitive standards."

    "For each state, and each locality, to set its own immigration policy in that fashion would wholly subvert Congress' goal: a single, national approach.

    But Arizona argues 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," Clement argues in his brief. He argues 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.

    "This flood of unlawful cross-border traffic and the accompanying influx of illegal drugs, dangerous criminals and highly vulnerable persons have resulted in massive problems for Arizona's citizens and government," Clement said.

    The attorney describes 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 immigrations 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.

    "We think that Arizona has a right to protect and defend its citizens," Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever told Fox News.

    But Cecillia Wang, with the American Civil Liberties Union, described the Arizona law as short-sighted.

    For instance, she said the law does not allow state police to weigh considerations like whether an immigrant is seeking asylum because they might face torture back home. Even though that individual might have permission to stay in the U.S., Arizona law would subject them to questioning and detention, she said.

    Wang said it's "totally at odds with federal law and federal policy and what Congress wants."