WASHINGTON -- A divided Supreme Court threw out major parts of Arizona's tough crackdown on illegal immigrants yesterday in a ruling sure to reverberate through the November elections.
The justices unanimously approved the law's most-discussed provision -- requiring police to check the immigration status of those they stop for other reasons -- but limited the consequences.
Although upholding the "show me your papers" requirement, which some critics say could lead to ethnic profiling, the justices struck down provisions that created state crimes allowing local police to arrest people for federal immigration violations. And they warned against detaining people for any prolonged period merely for not having proper immigration papers.
The mixed outcome vindicated the Obama administration's aggressive challenge to laws passed by Arizona and the five states -- Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah -- that followed its lead in attempting to deal with illegal immigration in the face of federal inaction on comprehensive reform.
The administration had assailed the Arizona law as an unconstitutional intrusion into an area under federal control.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined in his majority opinion by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts as well as three liberal justices, said the impasse in Washington over immigration reform did not justify state intrusion.
The Arizona decision landed in the middle of a presidential campaign in which President Barack Obama has been heavily courting Latino voters and Republican challenger Mitt Romney has been struggling to win Latino support.
During a drawn-out primary campaign, Romney and the other GOP candidates mostly embraced a hard line on the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, though Romney has lately taken a softer tone.
Obama said he was pleased that the court struck down key parts of Arizona's law but was concerned about what the high court left intact.
"No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like," the president said in a written statement. He said police in Arizona should not enforce the provision in a way that undermines civil rights.
In Scottsdale, Ariz., later yesterday, Romney said he would have preferred that the court "give more latitude to the states" in immigration enforcement.
Romney told campaign donors that the law has "become a muddle" and that the states have more options to enforce their own immigration laws.
The Court's decisions
Arizona immigration law
A divided court struck down these three major provisions:
Requiring all immigrants to obtain or carry immigration registration papers.
Making it a state criminal offense for an illegal immigrant to seek work or hold a job.
Allowing police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants without warrants.
Parole for juveniles
Threw out mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles in America. The 5-4 ruling continued its trend of holding that children cannot be automatically punished the same way as criminal adults without considering their age and other factors. The court's four liberals and swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy formed the majority.joined to order states and the federal government to allow judges and juries to consider a juvenile's age when they hand down sentences for some of the harshest crimes, instead of making life in prison without parole automatic.
Turned away a plea to revisit its 2-year-old decision in the Citizens United case and instead struck down a Montana law limiting corporate campaign spending. The same five conservative justices in the Citizens United majority that freed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts in federal elections joined to reverse a Montana court ruling upholding the state's century-old law.
Display of religious symbols
Declined to get involved in a fight over whether a 29-foot war memorial cross can remain on public land overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Diego. The justices refused to review an appeals court ruling that deemed the Mount Soledad cross an unconstitutional mixing of government and religion.