Supreme Court upholds state requirements on employment verification

In a close vote, the Supreme Court ruled today that states have the right to enforce laws that require businesses to verify that employees are eligible to work in the US.  The court ruled 5-3 that an Arizona law did not infringe on federal jurisdiction but instead fit within an explicit exception on licensing:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld an Arizona law that imposes sanctions against businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

The court, on a 5-3 vote, said federal immigration law does not bar Arizona from suspending or revoking the licenses of businesses that employ unauthorized aliens.

“Because we conclude that the state’s licensing provisions fall squarely within the federal statute’s savings clause and that the Arizona regulation does not otherwise conflict with federal law, we hold that the Arizona law is not preempted,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a 27-page opinion.

Elana Kagan recused herself from this case, as she had done some prior work on it as Solicitor General.  Otherwise, the vote broke exactly as one would suspect, with the three liberal jurists dissenting from the four conservatives, and Anthony Kennedy siding with the Right.

The ruling is important in several ways.  First, it establishes that state governments have an interest in enforcing employment eligibility.  That point may come into play in later cases, and it lends credibility to efforts in other states to mandate employment-eligibility verification.  Next, it allows those other states to use Arizona’s law as a template.  That will strike a blow at the economic magnet that incentivizes illegal immigration, hopefully slowing down the tide crossing the borders and making later immigration reform that much easier.

Matthew Franck at Bench Memos offers a brief reminder of another virtue of the ruling — a reminder that courts should stick to the textual meaning of law:

Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, and based the ruling on the plain meaning of the federal immigration statute, which expressly preserves the power of states to legislate on the subject of employing illegal immigrants through their licensing power, as Arizona had done here.

This should have been an 8-0 ruling, given that the law was written with Arizona’s intent expressly in mind.  It’s another reason that elections for executive office matter very, very much.