By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
May 26, 2011, 8:34 a.m.
The Supreme Court on Thursday gave Arizona and other states more authority to take action against illegal immigrants and the companies that hire them, ruling that employers who knowingly hire illegal workers can lose their license to do business.
The 5-3 decision upholds the Legal Arizona Workers Act of 2007 and its so-called business death penalty for employers who are caught repeatedly hiring illegal immigrants. The state law also requires employers to check the federal E-Verify system before hiring new workers, a provision that was also upheld Thursday.
The court's decision did not deal with the more controversial Arizona law passed last year that gave police more authority to stop and question those who are suspected of being in the state illegally. But the ruling is likely to encourage the state and its supporters because the court majority said states remained free to take action involving immigrants.
Thursday's decision is a defeat for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, several civil-rights groups and the Obama administration, all of whom opposed the Arizona law and its sanctions on employers. They argued that federal law said states may not impose "civil or criminal sanctions" on employers.
But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said another portion of the same law made clear that states were free to use their "licensing" laws to punish employers. Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. formed the majority in Chamber of Commerce vs. Whiting.
The Arizona law upheld Thursday was signed into law by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, who now serves as secretary of Homeland Security for President Obama.
In dissent were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. They said federal law prohibited states from imposing their own immigration-related rules on employers. Justice Elena Kagan sat out the case.
Soon after the Arizona employment law went into effect, lawyers for the chamber and civil-rights group sued, contending it was preempted or trumped by federal immigration laws. But a federal judge and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Arizona measure. The Supreme Court affirmed those decisions Thursday.
Roberts noted that eight other states had passed similar laws. They are Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
The other Arizona law involving police enforcement has been challenged — successfully, so far — by the Obama administration and civil-rights groups. They say enforcement of laws against illegal immigration is exclusively in the hands of federal authorities. A federal judge and the U.S. 9th Court of Appeals have put that Arizona law on hold. Gov. Jan Brewer said she planned to appeal the issue to the Supreme Court.