WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to rule on Arizona's controversial law targeting illegal immigrants, setting the stage for an election-year decision on an issue that is already shaping presidential politics.
The justices said they will review a federal appeals court ruling that blocked several tough provisions in the Arizona law. One of those requires that police, while enforcing other laws, question a person's immigration status if officers suspect he is in the country illegally.
The Obama administration challenged the Arizona law by arguing that regulating immigration is the job of the federal government, not states. Similar laws in Alabama, South Carolina and Utah also are facing administration lawsuits. Private groups are suing over immigration measures adopted in Georgia and Indiana.
The court now has three politically charged cases on its election-year calendar. The other two are President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and new electoral maps for Texas' legislature and congressional delegation.
Justice Elena Kagan will not take part in the Arizona case, presumably because of her work on the issue when she served in the Justice Department.
Arguments probably will take place in late April, which would give the court roughly two months to decide the case.
Some 12 million illegal immigrants are believed to live in the United States, and the issue already is becoming a factor in the 2012 campaign. Republican Sen. John McCain said recently that large Hispanic populations in his home state of Arizona and elsewhere are listening carefully to what Republican candidates have to say on immigration.
The immigration case before the Supreme Court stems from the Obama administration's furious legal fight against a patchwork of state laws targeting illegal immigrants.
Arizona wants the justices to allow the state to begin enforcing measures that have been blocked by lower courts at the administration's request.
The state says that the federal government isn't doing enough to address illegal immigration and that border states are suffering disproportionately.
In urging the court to hear the immigration case, Arizona says the administration's contention that states "are powerless to use their own resources to enforce federal immigration standards without the express blessing of the federal executive goes to the heart of our nation's system of dual sovereignty and cooperative federalism."
Many other state and local governments have taken steps aimed at reducing the effects of illegal immigration, the state says.
But the administration argues that the various legal challenges making their way through the system provide a reason to wait and see how other courts rule.
Gov. Jan Brewer signed the immigration measure, S.B. 1070, into law in April 2010. The administration sued in July to block the law from taking effect.
In April, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld a federal judge's ruling halting enforcement of several provisions of the Arizona law. Among the blocked provisions: requiring all immigrants to obtain or carry immigration registration papers; making it a state criminal offense for an illegal immigrant to seek work or hold a job; and allowing police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants without a warrant.
In October, the federal appeals court in Atlanta blocked parts of the Alabama law that forced public schools to check the immigration status of students and allowed police to file criminal charges against people who are unable to prove their citizenship.
Lawsuits in South Carolina and Utah are not as far along.
The case is Arizona v. U.S., 11-182.