WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of an Arizona law Monday that sought to deter illegal immigration, but it let stand a controversial provision that lets police check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws.
In a decision sure to ripple across the political landscape in a presidential election year, the court's 5-3 ruling upheld the authority of the federal government to set immigration policy and laws.
The Supreme Court concluded that the federal government had the power to block the law -- known as SB1070. Yet the court let stand one of the most controversial parts of the bill -- a provision that lets police check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws if "reasonable suspicion" exists that the person is in the United States illegally.
"There is a basic uncertainty about what the law means and how it will be enforced," Kennedy wrote. "At this stage, without the benefit of a definitive interpretation from state courts, it would be inappropriate to assume (the provision) will be construed in a way that creates a conflict with federal law."
Kennedy made clear that Arizona authorities had to enforce the immigration status checks in compliance with federal law or face certain constitutional challenges.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer declared the ruling a victory for her state, saying the "heart" of the law can now be implemented "in accordance with the U.S. Constitution."
"While we are grateful for this legal victory, today is an opportunity to reflect on our journey and focus upon the true task ahead: the implementation and enforcement of this law in an even-handed manner that lives up to our highest ideals as American citizens," Brewer said in a statement. "Law enforcement will be held accountable should this statute be misused in a fashion that violates an individual's civil rights."
An official in President Barack Obama's administration, speaking on condition of not being identified, said the ruling upholds federal authority on immigration.
"It strikes down most provisions, recognizes the federal government's supremacy in immigration law and enforcement, and narrows the reading of section 2, basically saying that state and local law enforcement cannot do any more than they already are allowed to do under federal statute in regards to requesting immigration status verification from the federal government," the official said.
The hot-button immigration issue has become a major attack line in this year's presidential campaign, with Republicans, led by their certain presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, accusing Obama of failing to devise a comprehensive strategy to deal with illegal immigration.
Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Monday's ruling "essentially puts an end to immigration enforcement since the states no longer can step in and fill the void created by the Obama administration."
The federal government challenged four provisions of the Arizona law that never were enforced, pending the legal ruling.
Provisions struck down included:
-- Authorizing police to arrest immigrants without warrant where "probable cause" exists that they committed any public offense making them removable from the country.
-- Making it a state crime for "unauthorized immigrants" to fail to carry registration papers and other government identification.
-- Forbidding those not authorized for employment in the United States to apply, solicit or perform work. That would include immigrants standing in a parking lot who "gesture or nod" their willingness to be employed.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the minority, argued the court's ruling encroached on Arizona's sovereign powers.
"If securing its territory in this fashion is not within the power of Arizona, we should cease referring to it as a sovereign state," Scalia wrote in a dissent backed by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.