Paul Greenberg

It was left to the Supreme Court of the United States last week to take on the immigration issue, since the other branches of the federal government have largely ignored it. For years.

Yes, there's been a lot of rhetoric about it all around, even a stopgap here and there when this chronic crisis becomes acute. But no clear, comprehensive solution or even much progress toward it.

Even the best-intentioned proposals never seem to gain much traction, and soon fade away in all the politics the subject invites. And the emotion it inspires.

Like so many problems allowed to fester, this one found its way to the courts. Which is the American Way, however unsatisfactory and unsatisfying the results might be.

Asked to judge Arizona's attempt to control illegal immigration in that state, an attempt scarcely confined to Arizona, the Supremes decided yes, no and maybe.

The high court, like so many Americans, is clearly divided on the issue. Every which way. But the justices recognized they had to do something to fill this vacuum of law and leadership on so central a question -- for any nation. Like who belongs in it.

How summarize this decision, or rather decisions?

Anchored by the swing vote of Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, and his honest attempt to apply reason of all things to a national problem, the court upheld the federal government's general authority over nationally uniform standards for naturalization and immigration, just as the Constitution makes clear.

There's a reason the phrase "naturalization and immigration" has become common in constitutional law. For there's no reason to doubt the federal government's overriding jurisdiction in all such matters.

This is, after all, one nation indivisible. Or is supposed to be. Even if Mr. Justice Kennedy's application of that principle seemed to reduce one of his fellow justices, Antonin Scalia, to his usual apoplexy when he sees issues as a lot simpler than they are. He's almost made an art of it, going into medium-high dudgeon when ginning out one of his overwrought opinions.

. .

The great advantage of substituting rhetoric for reason is that it frees the jurist from having to think. He need only preen. Yes, there have been great justices who were adept at both rhetoric and reason. Names like John Marshall and Learned Hand come quickly to mind. Alas, Justice Scalia is not one of them, entertaining as he is.

What got Brother Scalia exercised this time was the majority's letting the federal government be the federal government when it comes to enforcing immigration law, rather than leaving it to individual states like, in this case, Arizona.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.