The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

What You Need to Know About Today’s Supreme Court Rulings

Today, the Supreme Court issued three very important rulings:

The Good

In a significant victory for the Obama administration, the justices struck down the majority of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Arizona Does Not Get To Have Its Own Immigration Policy: For decades the backbone of American immigration law has been an understanding that the United States has one immigration policy set by our national government, not fifty different immigration policies set by fifty different states. Today’s decision leaves this basic framework in place.
  • Arizona Cannot Create New Crimes Targeting Immigrants: SB 1070 criminalizes “willful failure to complete or carry an alien registration document,” it makes it a crime for undocumented immigrants to work or seek work, and it authorizes police to arrest anyone the officer has “probably cause to believe” can be deported. All of these provisions were struck down by the Court.
  • Arizona Cannot Detain People Simply Because They Might Be Undocumented: Although the opinion does not strike down the “show me your papers” provision, it significantly lessens the harm caused by this provision. SB 1070 provides that “[a]ny person who is arrested shall have the person’s immigration status de­termined before the person is released,” but the Court warns the state not to apply this provision literally if it wants to avoid running headlong into the Constitution:

Detaining individuals solely to verify their immi­gration status would raise constitutional concerns. And it would disrupt the federal framework to put state officers in the position of holding aliens in custody for possible unlawful presence without federal direction and supervision.

  • Obama’s DREAM Initiative Is Legal: Finally, the opinion strongly hints that the Obama Administration’s directive allowing undocumented college students and veterans to remain in the country is lawful. Indeed, on page 17 of the opinion, the Court explicitly lists “a veteran” or a “college student” as two examples of undocumented immigrants who should not experience “unnecessary harassment.”

For more on the legal ins-and-outs of today’s decision in the Arizona case, check out this post.

In the juvenile sentencing case, Justice Kennedy joined the High Court’s more liberal members to rule that juvenile offenders who commit homicide crimes cannot be mandatorily sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The ruling extends the reasoning of a 2009 decision prohibiting similar sentences for juveniles who commit non-homicide crimes.

In his dissent in the case, Justice Alito mistakenly accused the wrong person of having “committed a brutal thrill-killing.”

The Bad

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court let the “papers please” portion of Arizona’s law stand, which will almost certainly lead to racial profiling in the state. The High Court, however, did make clear that the policy would have to be implemented in a very narrow manner in order to be constitutional. The justices also left that provision of the law open to further legal challenges. In other words, if the law is implemented poorly and, as is predicted, leads to racial profiling, it might be struck down at a later date.

It seems that innocent people, including American citizens, will have to suffer unnecessarily before this very troubling portion of the Arizona law is also invalidated.

The Ugly — Montana

The Montana case involved a Montana Supreme Court decision allowing the state’s century-old ban on corporate money and politics to stand, something which defied the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United and related cases. The case presented an opportunity for the High Court to review its ruling in Citizens United in light of the ever-mounting evidence of its negative impact on elections and our democracy.

Instead of reviewing its disastrous decision, the High Court voted 5-4 to just overturn the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling (and Montana’s legal ban on corporate money in elections). They didn’t ask for any new briefs, schedule a hearing, or even consider new evidence. They simply reaffirmed their fatally flawed decision, no questions asked.

CAP Action Fund’s Tom Perriello sums it up pretty well:

Corporations aren’t people and our democracy shouldn’t be for sale. Despite mountains of evidence that their decision has opened the floodgates of special interest secret money into our elections—selling our democracy to the highest bidder—today five justices overturned a decision by Montana’s Supreme Court without even hearing any arguments.

If their original decision could be discounted as astoundingly naïve, this rejection of Montana’s anticorruption laws is a crass attempt to rig the political system to protect the powerful and lock in partisan political gains. For more than two centuries, a set of conservative ideologues have bemoaned that the Articles of Confederation were ever replaced by the Constitution. With shocking speed, there are five men trying to reverse what our nation’s founders long ago corrected.

The Ugly — Arizona

It just so happens that Mitt Romney is in Arizona today to raise money. Following the ruling in the Arizona case, his campaign issued a statement that blamed President Obama for everything, but didn’t say how he felt about either the ruling or even the Arizona law itself. Even when pressed repeatedly by reporters, his campaign still refused to state his position on any of the issues raised by the Supreme Court or on the Arizona law itself.

At a fundraiser earlier this afternoon, Romney himself seemed to imply support for the parts of SB1070 struck down as unconstitutional. He said he wishes that the Supreme Court had given states “more latitude”  to pass and implement harsh anti-immigrant laws that makes immigrants’ lives miserable and also infringe on the rights of American citizens.

This comes after another weekend of media appearances where top Romney campaign officials once again refused to say what Romney would do with the president’s new immigration policy if he’s elected president.

Even a prominent Republican called Romney’s continued evasiveness on immigration indefensible.

Finally, in a bizarre and highly inappropriate twist, Justice Scalia decided to use his dissenting opinion to attack the Obama administration’s new immigration policy, which was announced well after the case was argued and had absolutely nothing to do with the case before the Supreme Court. As noted above, the majority opinion very strongly implied that the president’s new initiative is legal.

Next Up — Obamacare

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the three Obamacare cases it heard will be released at 10:00 a.m. this Thursday. Watch this space on Thursday for everything you need to know about that critical ruling.

Evening Brief: Important Stories That You May Have Missed

The Republican leader of the Pennsylvania House admits that his state passed a voter ID law to help Mitt Romney win.

Meet NFIB, the partisan group trying to kill Obamacare.

Bank CEO pay grew 12 percent last year, even as wages near all-time low.

Not invited to Romney’s swanky weekend retreat with wealthy donors? Here’s what happened.

Eight major issues that Romney refuses to reveal his position on.

After blaming Obama for their rise, Republicans are now silent on plummeting gas prices.

A GOP Congressman laughs at the idea of “pistol whipping” nuns.

The Newsroom and pop culture’s allergy to reporting.

After spending $47 MILLION, the tobacco industry very narrowly beat back a proposed cigarette tax in California.





The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Advocacy Team