Little Sympathy for Feds' Arguments in Ariz. Immigration Case

Supreme Court justices showed little sympathy for the federal government's argument that the "show me your papers" provision of Arizona's immigration enforcement law is invalid, making it appear likely the high court will allow that part of the law to stand.

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In Wednesday's oral argument in one of the most watched immigration cases in 10 years, Justice Antonin Scalia all but laughed the federal government's lawyer out of the courtroom when he suggested that Arizona police officers were somehow deterring the federal government from enforcing immigration laws by simply asking federal officers whether a person they stop is illegal. Scalia demanded that Justice Department Solicitor General Donald Verrilli cite "any other case" in which a state law can be preempted for "interfering with an attorney general's enforcement discretion"¦ That's an extraordinary statement."

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Chief Justice John Roberts noted the Arizona law only allows legal status checks if the police officer has pulled over a person for some other reason. The Arizona officer is simply alerting the federal government to an illegal alien's presence. "It seems to me the federal government just doesn't want to know who's here or not," Roberts said.

Even Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who offered the most sympathy for the government's position, pointed out to Verrilli that his argument "isn't selling very well" — namely that a systematic system of status checks is somehow different from the current ad hoc one.

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The papers provision is one of four in question in the case. The others involve warrantless arrests, ID requirements, and undocumented people seeking jobs. The justices were less harsh about the government's objections to the other provisions, making it increasingly likely that the court will rule separately on different portions of the law.