* Justice Kennedy questions social, economic disruption
* Liberals concerned about practical impact of strict law
* Ruling expected by end of June, to play role in election
By James Vicini and Joan Biskupic
WASHINGTON, April 25 Conservative justices who
hold a majority on the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to endorse
Arizona's immigration crackdown on Wednesday, rejecting the
Obama administration stance that the federal government has sole
power over those who illegally enter the United States.
During 80 minutes of oral arguments, the justices suggested
by their questions and comments that states have significant
latitude to adopt laws that discourage illegal immigrants from
moving to and staying in the country.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who often casts the deciding vote,
referred to the "social and economic disruption" that states
endure as a result of a flood of illegal immigrants and
suggested that states such as Arizona have authority to act.
Arizona two years ago became the first of half a dozen U.S.
states to pass laws aimed at driving illegal immigrants out,
including requiring police to check the immigration status of
anyone detained and suspected of being in the country illegally.
The battle over the law goes to the heart of a fierce
national debate between Democrats and Republicans over what to
do with the estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the
country, a number that has held steady in recent years.
Critics have said the Arizona law could lead to ethnic and
racial profiling of the fast-growing Hispanic population, now
equal to 16 percent of all Americans.
The four conservatives - Chief Justice John Roberts and
Justices Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Samuel Alito - all asked
tough questions of the administration's lawyer. Fellow
conservative Justice Clarence Thomas did not ask any questions
but is expected to support the Arizona law, based on his past
The Supreme Court's immigration ruling is likely to come by
the end of June, as the political campaign season heats up. It
is expected around the same time justices are likely to rule on
President Barack Obama's 2010 healthcare overhaul law.
The case, heard on the last day of oral arguments for the
annual term, drew more than 100 reporters to the courtroom press
seats and scores of people on the sidewalk outside the building.
The immigration dispute is the second most important case of the
term, following the healthcare dispute heard in March.
Only eight of the nine Supreme Court justices heard the
arguments. Liberal Justice Elena Kagan, the former top Obama
administration lawyer at the court, recused herself because she
had worked on the matter previously.
Her fellow liberal justices appeared to accept that the
conservative majority would vote to uphold at least part of the
Arizona law and focused their questions on how those provisions,
which have been on hold during the litigation, would be applied
on the ground.
A decision for the Arizona law would be a setback for
President Barack Obama, who has criticized it and has vowed to
push for immigration legislation if re-elected on Nov. 6.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said the
government should drop its challenge to the law.
Roberts, who also could play a key role in deciding the
case, spurned the administration's arguments that the Arizona
law conflicted with the federal system and deemed it "an effort
to help you enforce federal law."
Other parts of the Arizona law require immigrants to carry
their papers at all times; ban illegal immigrants from
soliciting work in public places; and allow police to arrest
immigrants without a warrant if an officer believes they have
committed a crime that would make them deportable.
Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor asked
how long suspected illegal immigrants could be held by
authorities while their status was checked and whether that
would violate their constitutional rights.
There will be a "significant number of people detained for a
significantly longer period of time," Breyer said.
The third liberal hearing the case, Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
asked more broadly about whether Arizona's new law conflicted
with federal policy: "We don't want competing ... schemes."
RACIAL PROFILING AN ISSUE?
Roberts tried to cut off the argument that the Arizona law
would lead to ethnic and racial profiling of Hispanics by
interrupting the government attorney's opening statement and
asserting that profiling was not at issue in the case.
The arguments, the last of the court's 2011-12 term, offered
a rematch of the same attorneys who squared off in last month's
historic battle over Obama's healthcare overhaul law.
Paul Clement, a solicitor general during Republican George
W. Bush's presidency, represented Arizona and its Republican
governor, Jan Brewer.
He argued that Arizona, on the southwest border with Mexico,
bears a disproportionate share of the costs from illegal
immigration. He said that state's law simply complemented the
federal government's efforts.
Donald Verrilli, a former White House lawyer and now
solicitor general under Obama, argued Arizona's law would result
in "mass incarceration" of people unlawfully present in the
United States and posed the risk of "significant foreign
The conservative Scalia scoffed at that argument, saying
that any problems could be avoided by releasing the people from
jail and deporting them.
The Supreme Court last year upheld a different Arizona law
that penalizes businesses for hiring illegal immigrants, and
Roberts at one point cited that decision as a precedent.
The Supreme Court case is Arizona v. United States, No.