A pair of split Supreme Court rulings this week handed the Obama Administration a perhaps surprising victory, provoking a positive frenzy of political spinning that drew sharp distinctions between various candidates in Rim Country races.
The Supreme Court issued a long-awaited decision on Arizona’s “check your papers” SB 1070 and the federal Health Care Reform Act.
Both sides seem to think the rulings will prove crucial in the upcoming elections, judging from the fury and the density and predictable partisan spin the two decisions inspired from local candidates this week.
The court threw out most of the key elements of Arizona’s SB 1070, the passage of which proved so crucial in Gov. Jan Brewer’s election campaign against Terry Goddard. She was lagging badly in the polls due to the collapsed Arizona economy, until the Legislature passed SB 1070 and she made it the cornerstone of her campaign.
The five-judge court majority decisively rejected the law’s requirement that people carry identification papers, a provision that would make it illegal for an undocumented worker to seek a job and a third provision that would allow officers to arrest without a warrant anyone they think the federal government might deport.
Only one provision of SB 1070 survived scrutiny — and that just barely. The court held that officers who make a stop for some other reason can also check on a detainee’s immigration status. However, officers can’t hold onto the person after they resolve the original issue while waiting for a response from immigration authorities. In practice, that means officers will only complete status checks for people they have locked up for some other reason — something police did routinely before SB 1070 passed.
Some leading Republicans led by Gov. Jan Brewer initially decided to take the Alice in Wonderland approach — trying to portray the ruling as a victory. Brewer characterized the stinging rejection as “a victory for the rule of law. It is also a victory for the 10th Amendment and all Americans who believe in the inherent right and responsibility of states to defend their citizens.”
Republican Rep. Paul Gosar, an incumbent who currently represents Rim Country and who moved along with Rim Country into a new congressional district after redistricting, mixed a quick mischaracterization of the decision with a blast at the Obama Administration. He said the ruling was “in favor of Arizona’s right to protect its citizens.” Then in a line that ignored the Justice Department’s broad victory added, “The Obama Administration was wrong in its decision to sue the state and even more wrong not to enforce existing laws. Arizona has always been a leader in the fight for state’s rights and I am confident Arizona will continue this fight moving forward.”
He also said that a subsequently announced shift in immigration enforcement policy in the Tucson sector amounted to a “declaration of war” on Arizona by the federal government.
Gosar faces Lake Havasu City State Representative Ron Gould in the Republican Primary, in a district that almost guarantees the seat to a Republican in the general election.
Perhaps the most interesting reactions to the decision overturning SB 1070 came from the three major candidates for U.S. Senate, a surprisingly tight race that could well tilt the balance of power in the Senate.
Congressman Jeff Flake has numerous Rim Country connections and was once a seeming shoe-in for the Republican nomination. However, he’s now running neck-and-neck with Tea Party businessman Wil Cardon, who has dumped millions of dollars of his own money into the race. Cardon has managed the seeming impossible: making Flake, who crusaded against earmarks for years, sound like a bleeding heart liberal friend of lobbyists — thanks to Flake’s stint as a registered lobbyist.
The SB 1070 debate played right into Cardon’s hands in the Republican Primary, since Flake backed Sen. John McCain’s effort four years ago to forge a comprehensive immigration policy. Cardon blasted both Flake’s previous show of moderation and the Supreme Court decision.
For his part, Flake described the decision as a “mixed bag,” and criticized the Obama Administration for not doing enough to seal off the border. In past appearances in Payson, Flake has backed away from his previous support for a comprehensive solution — saying the feds must secure the border before doing anything else.
Meanwhile, the lone credible Democrat in the Senate race could pick up points on the immigration issue. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, a combat-decorated veteran who launched Tucson’s system of trauma centers, praised the Supreme Court decision but also criticized the Obama Administration for not doing enough to control immigration. An Hispanic himself, now running neck and neck with Flake in the polls, Carmona praised Flake’s now abandoned position in favor of a comprehensive solution and added, “Our immigration problems are complex but the solutions are simple: Secure the border, develop a pathway to earn legal status and enact the DREAM Act” allowing long-time residents with a clean record who have advanced in school or the armed services to become citizens.
Lots of those reactions substantially misstated the court’s actual decision. The court majority made short work of Arizona’s insistence it could enact and enforce state immigration law, even if those laws echo federal provisions.
Even the upheld provision that allows local police to run immigration checks while they write tickets or have a suspect in jail for something else look like it’s on life support. The court left the door propped wide open for a legal challenge of the enforcement of that provision in the future, based either on claims of racial profiling or on claims that officers kept someone in custody awaiting word from federal officials on their status.
The court majority ruled unambiguously that regulation of immigration remains a purely federal responsibility and the government retains “broad discretion” in deciding when and how to enforce immigration laws — which precludes the state’s exercising that discretion based on separate state laws.
The court opinions make fascinating reading, from Chief Justice Roberts’ holding for the majority to Justice Scalia’s scathing dissent. But you couldn’t have learned much about the actual opinions from reading the comments of the candidates, in the wild spin cycle of the campaigns.