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Momentous decisions due from Supreme Court on immigration, health care reform

By David C. Savage

Tribune Washington Bureau

Published: Monday, June 25 2012 12:52 a.m. MDT

Two years ago, the Arizona Legislature, frustrated over federal inaction, told its police to check whether people they stop for some other reason are in this country legally. Its also made it a state crime for immigrants to seek work or to fail to show proper documents. Before the law could take effect, however, the Obama administration sued and won rulings that put its key provisions on hold.

During the arguments in April, Roberts and several of the liberal justices suggested they would uphold the "stop and question" part of Arizona's law but block the provisions that make it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant.

The Immigration and Nationality Act says federal authorities have the final word on who is deported, but it also says states may "cooperate" in the "identification, apprehension and detention" of illegal immigrants.

The most disputed provision in the Arizona law tells the police that when they make a lawful stop, they must check the immigration status of any person they suspect is "unlawfully present in the United States."

The chief justice said he saw no problem with this provision. Once the police detain a suspected illegal immigrant, they would contact federal officials. "It's still your decision" on whether to hold or release the individual, Roberts told the administration's lawyer.

On the other hand, the parts of the law creating separate state crimes, if upheld, would allow Arizona to send illegal immigrants to jail, even if federal authorities objected. The justices hinted they were likely to block those provisions as conflicting with federal law. If so, Arizona can claim its law has been upheld, but it will be a much weaker version.

In its final week, the justices will also decide whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to send a 14-year- old to life in prison with no chance for parole, and whether the First Amendment protects a liar who claims to have won military honors.

The court says it will issue decisions today, but the final rulings are not likely until Wednesday or Thursday.

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