The U.S. Supreme Court decision on the 2010 health care law may be the most consequential decision of the year, but it was just one in a flurry of decisions announced at the end of the session.
Arizona Immigration Law
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Arizona overstepped its bounds with its immigration law. But the court said that the most controversial part of the bill—a requirement that police verify the immigration status of those they suspect of being in the country illegally—could stand, at least for now.
S.B. 1070 included many changes and reforms to Arizona's immigration law. Most of these have already gone into effect, but the Supreme Court ruled on the four sections of the law that were blocked by a lower court:
Arizona's S.B. 1070 previously:
1. Required police to verify the citizenship or immigration status of those they arrest for other crimes and allowed police to arrest those they suspect to be undocumented immigrants;
2. Made it an Arizona crime for someone to be in the state without immigration papers;
3. Made it a crime to apply for a job or work in the state without valid papers; and
4. Gave police the power to arrest someone if they believed the person could be deported for a crime.
The Supreme Court ruled that only Section 2(B), the first of these four provisions, may stand, allowing Arizona to require state and local police to verify the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally. The Supreme Court ruled that the three other provisions infringe on the federal government's power to set immigration law.
"By striking down the major provisions of S.B. 1070, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the values that make this nation great, and in essence initiated the process of establishing a legal firewall against draconian measures as it pertains to immigration," Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said in a press release.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, disagreed with the court in a brief that said all four provisions should be upheld. Section 2(B) allows Arizona to enforce federal law when the federal government is not fully enforcing its immigration laws, Sekulow argued.
"Scholars, pundits, and politicians from all corners are sure to spin the Court's decision in various ways, but the importance of the Court's holding concerning Section 2(B) cannot be denied," Sekulow said. "It not only affirms a level of State sovereignty to enact provisions like Section 2(B), but it also [at least indirectly] reestablishes that Congress, not the Executive Branch, is the ultimate source of federal immigration policy."
The "show me your papers" provision goes into effect for now. The court decided that, on its face, the law was not problematic because state and local police already have the power under federal law to verify the immigration status of those they have stopped or arrested. The Arizona law simply requires police to do this. If this law is not implemented properly, however, the court said the law may not stand.
"It is not clear at this stage and on this record that Section 2(B), in practice, will require state officers to delay the release of detainees for no reason other than to verify their immigration status," the court's ruling states. "This 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."
The court made it clear that police cannot hold persons to verify their immigration status. For example, if someone is pulled over for a traffic violation, the police cannot make the person wait while his immigration status is being verified. Police also cannot hold those who the federal government says should be released. If someone is arrested for a crime, they cannot remain in custody if they would otherwise be released, even if they are in the country illegally.
The court did not consider the possibility of racial profiling because it was not part of the federal government's case. Future court cases may consider that issue if there is evidence the implementation of the law violates individuals' civil rights.
"Although a provision regarding proof of citizenship still stands in question, the court's decision conveys a clear message that 21st century jurisprudence will not tolerate measures that polarize and segregate our communities," Rodriguez said. "Now it's time for our federally elected officials to rise up with the moral fortitude to pass comprehensive immigration reform."
Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, praised the decision but warned of the possible consequences of the remaining portions of the law. "Christians concerned about vulnerable immigrants have called laws like Arizona's S.B. 1070 immoral, and now the Supreme Court has declared those lawsunconstitutional," Wallis said. "Arizona's immoral legislation threatened families, harmed children, and made it difficult for law enforcement to safeguard the communities they swore to protect; it remains important to ensure that any remaining parts of the legislation are never used to justify racial profiling by local police."
The court signaled to Arizona that the "show me your papers" provision could be overturned if the state failed to follow the court's guidance.
Criminal Justice for Juveniles
In recent years, the Supreme Court has considered how states punish juveniles. First the court ruled that juveniles could not be executed for their crimes. Then came a decision that minors could not be given a sentence of life without parole except in the case of murder. On Monday, the court went even further, ruling that life without parole is an unconstitutional punishment for juveniles even in the case of murder. Life sentences are permissible, but juveniles must be given the opportunity to be released.
Pat Nolan, president of Justice Fellowship, said he agrees with the decision.
"The notion that an act committed by a teenager should condemn him or her to decades behind bars and even death in custody is troubling," Nolan said. "You don't have to be a person of faith to know that transformation is possible—and desirable. Shouldn't we make every effort to help these teens redirect their lives so they can contribute to society?"
The Constitution protects the freedom of speech, but what is speech? In one case, the court upheld its ruling in Citizens United. Campaign spending is speech, the court ruled, and is protected under the First Amendment. In this year's court case, the court considered a Montana law that prohibited corporations from contributing to candidates. The court said that the Montana law, just like federal law, could not prohibit such campaign spending.
Free speech can also include lying. The court overturned the federal Stolen Valor Act, a law that prohibited lying about receiving military medals or decorations. The court left open the possibility, however, that Congress could rewrite the law to make it constitutional. As written, the law would apply to even family or private conversations.
Free speech arguments were also part of a case on television broadcasts and obscenity. After a series of television broadcasts added "wardrobe malfunction" and "dropping the f-bomb" to the American vernacular, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued fines to broadcasters for incidents of brief obscenities. Broadcasters appealed the decision. The Supreme Court had the opportunity to decide on the case as a freedom of speech issue. Instead, the court unanimously said the FCC violated the rights of broadcasters. The FCC erred, said the court, by changing its policies and then fining broadcasters for incidents that occurred before the policies were changed. The FCC has the power to change its policies, but it cannot retroactively punish broadcasters.
No Decision on San Diego Cross—For Now
In 1954, a large white cross was erected atop a mountain in San Diego, California, as a memorial to veterans. A court ruled that the city of San Diego could no longer display the cross or give it to someone else. In 2006, Congress took possession of the cross through eminent domain. The courts considered the cross again. And again, the courts ruled that the cross is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
The Supreme Court did not hear the case. Instead, it sent the case back to a lower court for a final judgment. The federal government can then appeal the case after that decision is made and ask the Supreme Court to decide if the cross is constitutional or not.