States and illegal immigration: Justices will rule on controversial Arizona law

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear another major policy dispute between the Obama administration and conservative states, putting a review of Arizona's immigration enforcement statute on the spring docket with a challenge to the constitutionality of the president's health care reform legislation.

The takeaway from the high court's decision to quickly consider cases that would have affected the 2012 elections regardless: Justices are paying close attention to issues of national significance and understand the importance of clarifying them as quickly as possible.

Arizona's Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act -- more commonly known as SB 1070 -- was approved last year with two especially controversial provisions. The first requires immigrants to carry documentation of their status (something already required of foreign nationals under federal law). The second gives local and state police the authority to ask people about their immigration status in the course of actions such as traffic stops or calls to domestic disturbances, as well as the power to arrest anyone they suspect of being in the United States illegally.

Shortly after the law's enactment, a federal judge blocked those and other parts of the law at the request of the Obama administration, agreeing that immigration enforcement is an exclusively federal function. The Supreme Court will review that partial injunction and the lower-court decisions that upheld it.

That injunction did nothing to halt a wave of copycat legislation in other states, most notably Alabama, South Carolina and Utah. That's because the federal government, while demanding full responsibility for immigration enforcement, is largely abdicating that job and imposing the fiscal and social costs of its nonfeasance on the states.

Can states step into this void to limit their costs? In May, the high court answered "yes," albeit in a limited context. Justices upheld another Arizona statute, one that allows the revocation of a business license if an employer doesn't verify the immigration status of workers and hires people in the country illegally. Already, many local governments -- including Las Vegas -- work in conjunction with federal agencies to check the immigration status of suspects arrested on suspicion of other crimes.

The issue is not going away, especially in a hobbled economy. Clarification from the Supreme Court on the extent of federal authority in immigration enforcement could compel states to act where Washington won't, or to end their own legislative efforts and agitate Congress for a reasonable remedy.

As with its coming ruling on ObamaCare, the high court's decision on SB 1070 will go a long way toward determining the reach of the federal government and the freedom of the states. The country needs the clarity, and justices seem inclined to provide it.