Supreme Court justices took a dim view of the Obama administration’s claim that it can stop Arizona from enforcing immigration laws, telling government lawyers during oral argument Wednesday that the state appears to want to push federal officials, not conflict with them.
The court was hearing arguments on Arizona’s immigration crackdown law, which requires police to check the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally, and would also write new state penalties for illegal immigrants who try to apply for jobs.
The Obama administration has sued, arguing that those provisions conflict with the federal government’s role in setting immigration policy, but justices on both sides of the aisle struggled to understand that argument.
“It seems to me the federal government just doesn’t want to know who’s here illegally,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said at one point.
The Arizona law requires all police to check with federal officials if they suspect someone is in the country illegally. The government argues that is OK when it’s on a limited basis, but said having a state mandate for all of its law enforcement is essentially a method of trying to force the federal government to change its priorities.
Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said the federal government has limited resources and should have the right to determine the extent of calls it gets about possible illegal immigrants.
“These decisions have to be made at the national level,” he said.
But even Democratic-appointed justices were uncertain of that.
“I’m terribly confused by your answer,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who went on to say that the federal government can always decline to pick up illegal immigrants when Arizona officials call.
The Obama administration was on its firmest ground when it argued Arizona should not be allowed to impose state penalties such as jail time against illegal immigrants who try to seek jobs.
Federal law chiefly targets employers, not employees, and Mr. Verrilli said adding stiffer penalties at the state level is not coordination. He said Congress’s 1986 immigration law laying out legal penalties was meant to be a comprehensive scheme, and Congress left employees untouched — and Justice Sotomayor seemed to agree.
“It seems odd to think the federal government is deciding on employer sanctions and has unconsciously decided not to punish employees,” she told Paul D. Clement, who argued the case on behalf of Arizona.
A decision is expected before the end of the court’s term this summer.
Only eight justices were present for the arguments. Justice Elana Kagan recused herself from the case, presumably because she was the Obama administration’s solicitor general in 2010, when the law was being debated in Arizona.
Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the measure into law, was present for the arguments, as were members of Congress who follow the immigration issue: Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the top Democrat on the House immigration subcommittee, and Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who has fought for an immigration crackdown.