PHOENIX (AP) — Hundreds of immigrants who have been denied bail under a strict Arizona law will now have the opportunity to be released after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday in the closely watched case.
The high court kept intact a lower-court ruling from three weeks ago that struck down the law, which was passed in 2006 amid a series of immigration crackdowns in Arizona over the past decade. The law denies bail to immigrants who are in the country illegally and have been charged with a range of felonies that include shoplifting, aggravated identity theft, sexual assault and murder.
As a result, immigrants spend months in jail and often simply plead guilty and get turned over to federal immigration authorities for deportation.
The decision clears the way for a wave of bail hearings for immigrants across Arizona.
An 11-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law last month, ruling that it violates due-process rights by imposing punishment before trial. The panel also said the law was a "scattershot attempt" at confronting people who flee from authorities, and that there was no evidence the law dealt with a particularly critical problem.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Bill Montgomery defended the law before the courts. Their attorney argued the 9th Circuit ruling called into question categorical bans on bail in several states and said an official responsible for bail proceedings has already scheduled hearings for next week.
Montgomery lashed out at the ruling, denouncing "the serial disregard of the system of federalism that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals habitually ignores and which only the Supreme Court can redress." Montgomery's office estimates that hundreds of immigrants in metro Phoenix are now eligible for release under the decision, and prosecutors believe the action could overwhelm the court system and lead to defendants skipping bail and endangering the community.
"In the weeks ahead, we will endeavor to meet the challenge of responding to motions to review conditions of release that will now be filed as a consequence of the Ninth Circuit's callous rejection of legitimate state interests and the Supreme Court's disappointing indifference," Montgomery said in a statement.
The law's defenders say the ruling calls into question bans on bail for various reasons in 40 states. Four states — Arizona, Missouri, Alabama and Virginia — have laws confronting the issue of bail for immigrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union praised the decision.
"Today's Supreme Court ruling should put a stop to Arizona's unconstitutional attempt to jettison the presumption of innocence and the right to a bond hearing — protections that apply to all individuals, regardless of immigration status," said Cecillia Wang, the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project director.
In denying the stay, the Supreme Court let stand the 9th Circuit decision, at least for now. But Justice Clarence Thomas said he went along only because it was clear that the required four of nine justices would not vote to review the case.
Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, called that "unfortunate." He wrote that the high court has long had a practice of reviewing rulings that overturn state or federal laws, but "for reasons that escape me, we have not done so with any consistency, especially in recent months."
Thomas then went on to question why the high court has repeatedly declined in recent months to block a series of lower federal court decisions overturning state bans on gay marriage. In the no-bail case, "at the very least, we owe the people of Arizona the respect of our review before we let stand a decision facially invalidating a state constitutional amendment."
Thomas wrote that the court hasn't yet seen a full petition for review in the no-bail case and hopes his prediction that the court will turn it down is proven wrong. "Our recent practice, however, gives me little reason to be optimistic," he wrote.
The law was approved with 78 percent of the vote and was among four immigration proposals approved by Arizona voters in 2006. The other measures made English the state's official language, barred immigrants who aren't authorized to be in the country from receiving punitive damages in lawsuits and prohibited them from receiving certain government services and benefits.
In the ensuing years, Arizona lawmakers passed a series of immigration crackdowns on their own, culminating with SB1070 in 2010.