By Alan B. Morrison, Lerner Family Association Dean for Public Interest & Public Service at George Washington University Law School
The Supreme Court today by a vote of 5-3 upheld most of the rulings of the lower federal courts that Arizona’s efforts to supplement federal enforcement of federal immigration law was preempted by that law. Justice Kagan did not participate because she had worked on the case when she was Solicitor General. The ruling constituted a major victory for the Obama administration in a case that was vitally important to the Hispanic community.
Others will join the debate on whether the majority or the dissent was correct. I am writing to explore how progressives and others who support the American Constitution Society should react to this decision and how it compares to other decisions in which preemption was invoked to set aside other state laws that we might favor. My thesis is that, for most people, where you stand on preemption is where you sit on the substantive laws being preempted. A few examples will illustrate the point, after which I will try to put the issue in some perspective.
The proposition that federal law trumps state law if there is a conflict is not in dispute. The problem arises because Congress is often not clear, or does not anticipate what state laws might look like in a field where Congress has legislated. The Arizona case can fairly be described that way. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has also been clear that state laws that stand as obstacles to the objectives or means used in federal laws are also preempted, which was the claim made here when the United States sued over the Arizona law that avowedly sought to “discourage and deter unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States.” Opponents of the Arizona law saw it as an effort to harass immigrants as well as other Hispanics, while proponents claimed that it was designed to take up the slack in federal enforcement. Progressives generally favored the preemption side, while conservatives (including the three dissenting Justices, who did not include the Chief Justice) supported Arizona. For States, being opposed to federal preemption is their almost universal response, although they often take a different position when the issue is whether state law preempts actions by counties or towns. The United States is a little less monolithic, but tends to favor preemption in many if not most cases.