Several U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday voiced support for Arizona's effort to crack down on illegal immigration, appearing to reject Obama administration arguments that the federal government has sole responsibility for dealing with people who illegally enter the United States.
The conservative justices who hold a majority on the court suggested by their questions and comments that states would have significant latitude to adopt laws that discourage illegal immigrants from moving to and staying in the United States.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who casts the deciding vote in many cases, 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 a half dozen U.S. states to pass laws aimed at driving illegal immigrants elsewhere, 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 the 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.
A decision for 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. A ruling against Arizona would be a blow to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has said the government should drop its challenge to the law.
Chief Justice John 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."
The four conservative justices, Roberts, 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, based on past votes, is expected to support the Arizona law.
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.
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