U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton threw a monkey wrench into the deeply contentious debate over illegal immigration by declaring parts of Arizona's controversial immigration law to be unconstitutional. She based her decision on the bedrock legal principal that federal laws preempt state laws. Arizona's law was scheduled to go into effect on July 29.
"The Court by no means disregards Arizona's interests in controlling illegal immigration and addressing the concurrent problems with crime including the trafficking of humans, drugs, guns, and money," she wrote. "Even though Arizona's interests may be consistent with those of the federal government, it is not in the public interest for Arizona to enforce preempted law."
The U.S. Department of Justice hailed the ruling as a victory for common sense. It has argued that had the law stood as passed, it could have led to the creation of 50 different state immigration laws, a legal nightmare for all involved and counterproductive. Moreover, the U.S. couldn't deport all of the undocumented workers even if it wanted to because there are so many of them.
"The law is clearly unconstitutional," says Cecellia Wang, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "Everyone in Arizona can breathe a sigh of relief."
Backers: The State Will Prevail
Reaction from conservatives was swift. Rep. Darrell Isa (R-Calif.), who funded the recall campaign of then California Gov. Grey Davis (D) a few years ago, said the decision was "beyond absurd" and should be overturned.
The issue likely will be a focal point in Arizona politics. Sen. John McCain faces a tough challenge from former Congressman J.D. Hayworth, who recently noted: "The federal government has failed to protect the people of Arizona from illegal aliens, so the state government, quite sensibly, moved to fill the void. "
Governor Jan Brewer, whose Democratic challenger Attorney General Terry Goddard opposed the law and the federal lawsuit challenging it, and State Sen. Russell Pearce, the bill's author, were its main backers. Both said they were confident the state would prevail.
"I am disappointed by Judge Susan Bolton's ruling," Brewer said in a statement. "For anyone willing to see it -- the crisis is as clear as is the federal government's failure to address it." Said Representative Ann Kirkpatrick (D) in a statement:
"The courts may have ruled in favor of the federal government today, but the legal wrangling is just beginning. We have months and months of courtroom battles ahead of us, and Arizona's taxpayers are being forced to fund both sides -- that is money that should be going toward protecting our communities." (An earlier version of the story incorrectly attibuted the following statement to Kirkpatrick: "And at the end of what is certain to be a long legal struggle, Arizona will prevail in its right to protect our citizens.")
Backers of the law say its impact has been overblown by its many detractors. "If law enforcement could not stop someone before this law, they cannot stop them now," Pearce writes on his Web site. "If you did not have to carry ID before this law, you don't have to carry ID under this new law. We did not expand law enforcement authority or require any 'new' requirements or put new conditions on citizens. We simply took the handcuffs off from law enforcement and allow them to enforce our immigration laws, like any other law."
Kirkpatrick is surely right about at least one thing: The fight is far from over.