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Supreme Court signals it's OK with parts of Arizona's immigration law

As demonstrators stood outside the Supreme Court protesting the 2010 Arizona law known as SB 1070, the justices at the high court appeared sympathetic to the provision that allows police in Arizona to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story, msnbc.com erroneously described a portion of the bill under review. The section in question requires that  police try to determine the immigration status of people whom they arrest or stop if there's reasonable suspicion that person is in the country illegally.

Updated 1:35 p.m. ET: The U.S. Supreme Court indicated Wednesday it appears ready to uphold one of the most controversial parts of Arizona's immigration law: a requirement that police officers check the immigration status of people they think are in the country illegally.

Wading into a highly divisive issue in the middle of a presidential campaign year, conservative and liberal justices who heard oral arguments on Wednesday morning seemed to find no strong objection to that section of the law.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who casts the deciding vote in many cases, referred to the "social and economic disruption'' that states endure as a result of a flood of illegal immigrants and suggested that states such as Arizona have authority to act.


"You can see it's not selling very well," Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the more liberal-leaning judges, told Obama administration Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, referring to his arguments that the law would lead to harassment of citizens.

Arizona appeared to have a tougher time defending two other provisions of the law that are now blocked: making it a state crime to have no federal immigration papers and making it a state crime for an illegal immigrant to look for work. Neither is currently a federal crime.

The court session ran 20 minutes beyond the scheduled hour, with Verrilli arguing the case for the Obama administration and Washington attorney Paul Clement, who served as President George W. Bush’s solicitor general from 2005 to 2008, representing  Arizona and its Republican governor, Jan Brewer.

Chief Justice John Roberts dismissed the administration's arguments that the Arizona law conflicted with the federal system, saying Arizona’s measure is "an effort to help you enforce federal law.''
   
The four conservative justices, Roberts, Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, all asked tough questions of Verrilli. Fellow conservative Justice Clarence Thomas did not ask any questions, but based on past votes is expected to support the Arizona law.

Leonida Martinez, left, from Phoenix, Ariz., and others, take part in a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, as the court weighs Arizona's immigration law.

Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case because she had previously worked on it while serving as the solicitor general for Obama.

Verrilli tried to persuade the justices that they should view the law in its entirety and said it was inconsistent with federal immigration policy. He said the records check would allow the state to "engage effectively in mass incarceration" of undocumented  immigrants.

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But Roberts said the state merely wants to notify federal authorities it has someone in custody who may be in the U.S. illegally. "It seems to me that the federal government just doesn't want to know who's here illegally and who's not," Roberts said.

NBC's Steve Handelsman reports.

The Obama administration argues that only the federal government, not states, has the right to set immigration policy.  It says Arizona cannot impose immigration laws that conflict with federal laws.

Arizona says it enacted SB 1070 because the federal government has failed to stop an influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico. It says its law doesn’t conflict with federal statute, and in fact does specifically what the federal law is supposed to do.

The legislation was signed into law by Brewer in April 2010 but key parts of the law were put on hold by lower courts pending action by the Supreme Court on the challenge from the Obama administration. Arizona’s law has inspired similar laws in other states.
Brewer was on hand for the final argument of the Supreme Court's term.

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Outside the Supreme Court, supporters and opponents of the law held their own court, giving speeches, holding banners and singing songs. At one point, supporters of the law started singing, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” The Wall Street Journal reported.  Opponents joined in, and both groups sang the end of the national anthem together, the Journal reported.

The Supreme Court is expected to render a decision before the end of June.

It’s the second high-profile case involving the Obama administration to be argued this year before the Supreme Court. Last month, the court heard oral arguments on a constitutional challenge to Obama’s sweeping health care law.

One of the main architects of the Arizona law, former Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce, has described the unabated flow of illegal aliens into the country as one of the “greatest threats to our nation.”

“We have a national crisis, and yet we continue to ignore it," Pearce, who was removed from office last year in a recall election, testified on Tuesday at a U.S. Senate hearing.

NBC's Pete Williams and The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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