Justices grill feds in SB 1070 case - CBS 5 - KPHO

Justices grill feds in SB 1070 case

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Protesters outside U.S. Supreme Court Protesters outside U.S. Supreme Court

"You can see it's not selling very well," said Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonya Sotomayor. "Why don't you try to come up with something else?"

Those two sentences summed up the federal government's day in front of the United States Supreme Court. Little went the way of Solicitor General David Donald Virrelli in his effort to assert supreme federal authority over immigration.

[SPECIAL SECTION: U.S. Supreme Court takes up Arizona's Immigration Enforcement Law]

The day began with all of the signs of a landmark day at the country's highest court. Hundreds of demonstrators showed up. Hundreds of observers stood in line for a ticket to see the showdown in person.

Eight justices heard the attorney for Arizona, Paul Clement, argue that SB 1070 simply requires police to do what the federal government already allows them to do - detain illegal immigrants.

Virrelli claimed immigration is the sole responsibility of the federal government.

Both men faced tough questions.

Justice Stephen Breyer hounded Clement about the law's requirement that police detain people they believe are illegal immigrants.

"It says any person who is arrested shall have the person's immigration status determined before the person is released. So I wonder if they have arrested a citizen, he's Hispanic looking, he was jogging, he has a backpack, he has water in it and Pedialyte, so they think, oh, maybe this is an illegal person," said Breyer. "Can you represent to us that he would not stay in detention for a significantly longer period of time than he would have stayed in the absence of section 2(b)?"

Clement responded, "I don't want to represent that."

But it was Virrelli who had the toughest sell.

Justice Antonin Scalia asked,"What's wrong about states enforcing federal law? There is a federal law about robbing banks."

Virrelli responded, "…here what we are talking about is….an area of dominant federal concern, exclusive federal concern."

Scalia asked, "Arizona has no power? What does sovereignty mean if it does not include the ability to defend your borders?"

"What we heard today in the Supreme Court was just awesome," announced former state Sen. Russell Pearce, who was the sponsor of the law.

Opponents tried to put a positive spin on the turn of events.

"I'm very optimistic that the justices will do the right thing and uphold the lower court's decision, but there are some serious questions there," said state Sen. Steve Gallardo, an outspoken critic of the law.

Gallardo conceded that it looked like the federal government missed some opportunities to make its point in the hearing.

The decision is expected by the end of June.

Copyright 2012 CBS 5 (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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