WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court and the Obama administration are set for another politically charged clash as the justices on Wednesday take up Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants.
It will be a rematch of the attorneys who argued the health care case a month ago and another chapter in the partisan struggle over states' rights and the role of the federal government.
Once again, Obama's lawyers are likely to face skeptical questions from the Supreme Court. Last year, the court's five more-conservative justices rebuffed the administration and upheld an earlier Arizona immigration law that targeted employers who hired illegal workers.
To prevail this year, the administration must convince at least one of the five to switch sides and rule the state is going too far and interfering with the federal government's control over immigration policy.
The election-year legal battle goes to the heart of the dispute between Republicans and Democrats over what to do about the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Arizona and five other Republican-led states seek a stepped-up effort to arrest and deport illegal immigrants. They say the federal system is "broken" and fault Obama for a "relaxed" enforcement policy.
If cleared by the courts, Arizona would tell its police officers to check the immigration status of people they lawfully stop and suspect of being in the country illegally. If they were unable to show a driver's license or other "proof of legal presence," they would be arrested and held for federal immigration agents. Arizona also would make it a crime for illegal immigrants to seek work or to fail to carry immigration documents.
For its part, the Obama administration favors targeted enforcement, not mass arrests of illegal immigrants.
The administration has gone after drug traffickers, smugglers, violent felons, security risks and repeat border crossers. Last year, nearly 400,000 people were deported, a record high. At the same time, the administration says mere "unlawful presence" in this country is not a federal crime, and it opposes state efforts to round up and arrest more illegal immigrants.
Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Utah also have adopted tough immigration enforcement laws. But judges have blocked many of their provisions, awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court.
Washington lawyer Paul Clement, President George W. Bush's solicitor general, will argue for Arizona and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer on Wednesday; Obama's solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, will argue the Democratic administration's case.
Potential campaign issue
Clement is arguing for a stronger state role in enforcing the immigration laws, a traditional federal function. Verrilli is contending that Arizona's "maximum enforcement" policy for immigration goes too far and conflicts with federal policy.
The court's decision, expected by the end of June, could ignite the immigration issue in the presidential campaign.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said he supports laws in Arizona and elsewhere that seek to drive away illegal immigrants. "The answer is self-deportation," he said in one debate.
President Obama, on the other hand, has expressed concern about the effect on millions of normally law-abiding Hispanics, including those with U.S. citizenship.
Key parts put on hold
The Arizona law "potentially would allow someone to be stopped and picked up and asked where their citizenship papers are based on an assumption," Obama said in a recent interview. The president also supports the DREAM Act, a proposal that would offer a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who earn diplomas or serve in the military.
Two years ago, Obama's lawyers sued in federal court in Phoenix to block Arizona's law. They argued the federal government's exclusive power over immigration "preempts" the state's law. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton agreed, as did the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Its 2-1 decision put on hold four key parts of Arizona's law, including the stop-and-arrest provision.
If elected president, Romney has pledged to "drop these lawsuits on day one."
The Supreme Court, however, may revive most or all of Arizona's law by the summer. Last year, the court, in a 5-3 decision, upheld the Arizona law that would take away the business licenses of employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. The Obama administration, civil rights groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had contended this state enforcement measure clashed with federal immigration law.