Supreme Court to hear arguments on SB 1070

PHOENIX - Almost exactly two years after Arizona's controversial immigration legislation, SB 1070, was signed into law, the debate will be reignited in Washington, D.C. with what is expected to be a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision.

On Wednesday, the nation's highest court will hear arguments on the legislation, parts of which were struck down by lower courts.  At issue: whether local jurisdictions have a right to enforce federal immigration law, and whether SB 1070 will lead to widespread racial profiling.

"SB 1070 is the worst piece of legislation ever to come out of the state of Arizona," said State Sen. Steve Gallardo, a staunch opponent of the bill.

"Arizona has a story to tell, a success story," said former State Sen. Russell Pearce, who sponsored the bill in January of 2010.

Both Pearce and Gallardo plan to travel to Washington this week, and will testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration on Tuesday.  A number of protesters and supporters of the bill are expected to be in Washington this week as well. 

Governor Jan Brewer will attend the U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments on Wednesday, but declined an invitation to testify before the senate committee.

Brewer signed the bill on April 23, 2010, instantly adding a much needed shot in the arm to her gubernatorial campaign. Public opinion polls at the time showed widespread support for the legislation.

But weeks after the bill was signed, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing Arizona had overstepped its authority and pre-empted federal law. Just hours before the law was set to take effect, Federal Judge Susan Bolton issued an injunction, striking down five key provisions, including a portion of the law allowing police officers to inquire about a person's immigration status when making a lawful contact.

In April of last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Bolton's injunction, and the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court hears arguments under some unusual circumstances. The justices elected to rule on the injunction itself, even before lawsuits over the bill have been resolved. Justice Elena Kagan, the court's newest justice, has also recused herself from the case because she was the Obama administration's Solicitor General at the time the lawsuit was filed. That could mean the court could come to a 4-4 split decision, which would allow the lower court rulings to stand.

Legal experts say the court's quick action clearly shows a willingness to resolve a pressing issue. SB 1070 has prompted legislation in several other states. Pearce said he is currently working with 34 states looking to pass similar laws, but he adds, most are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule first.

Both supporters and detractors agree, SB 1070 has already had an impact. Pearce attributes a drop in crime in Phoenix to an exodus of illegal immigrants from the state. "Over 200,000 (illegal immigrants) have voluntarily left the state. We've had an impact." Critics charge the outmigration is the result of economic factors.

Gallardo charges SB 1070 has left Arizona polarized, and with a nationwide image problem which makes it difficult for the state to attract new business. "We are a laughing stock throughout the country," he said. "It has done nothing to secure our borders. It has done nothing to curb the illegal immigration problem."

The Supreme Court is expected to rule later this summer, but the issue may not be entirely resolved at that point. Because of challenges to a similar law in Alabama, the court may decide to take up issues raised in the 11th circuit court of appeals, which governs that part of the country.

ABC15 will be in Washington starting on Monday. Look for continuous reports on ABC and ABC15.com.

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