By Joan Biskupic
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court was deep into arguments over Arizona's new immigration law on Wednesday when the high court's first Hispanic justice focused on how difficult it could be for police officers to determine whether someone they stop is in the United States legally.
"What information does your (federal) system have?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli as she methodically extracted a core element of the Obama administration's case against the state of Arizona.
"How does that database tell you that someone is illegal as opposed to a citizen?" asked Sotomayor, 57, born in the Bronx to parents who had migrated from Puerto Rico. "Today, if you use the names Sonia Sotomayor, they would probably figure out I was a citizen. But let's assume it's John Doe, who lives in Grand Rapids. ... Is there a citizen database?"
Puerto Ricans have for nearly a century been U.S. citizens, so Sotomayor's family did not face the dilemmas of many other Hispanics who moved to the United States. Yet Sotomayor, who grew up in a housing project and went to Princeton and Yale on scholarships, has referred to the sting of discrimination and feeling "different" among people from elite backgrounds.
Verrilli told her that while many federal databases exist, including one listing U.S. passport holders, there is no citizenship database. "So you have lots of circumstances in which people who are citizens are going to come up (with) no match," he added.
On Wednesday, as Sotomayor, who joined the court in 2009, heard her first major immigration case, she vigorously questioned both sides. She showed a particular concern for the plight of people who might be detained by police based on their race or ethnicity.
STATE V. FEDERAL AUTHORITY
At the heart of the Arizona dispute is a test of state authority to enforce federal immigration law. It arises against an emotionally charged backdrop of concern for racial profiling and border protection.
Hispanic advocacy groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, have protested the Arizona law since it was signed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer in April 2010. Many of the country's estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants are from Latin America.
Critics of the Arizona law say even people in the United States legally could be targeted because of their skin color and national origin.
Sotomayor played a prominent role in the 80-minute hearing on Arizona's appeal of a lower court decision favoring the U.S. government stance that it has sole authority to regulate immigration.
She was first in with questions to Washington lawyer Paul Clement, who was defending the Arizona law, which among other provisions requires police to check the immigration status of people stopped for other offenses and detain those who lack proper documents.
She expressed concern that people might end up in jail for long periods while officers try to determine their status.
Lucas Guttentag, the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union's immigration rights project who now teaches law at Stanford and Yale, was in the courtroom and later observed that Sotomayor homed in on "practical consequences, in light of her understanding of the reality of these kinds of laws."
For his part, Clement brushed off concerns about problems in federal databases that might prevent local officials from quickly knowing the immigration status of someone stopped.
"If there is some sloppiness in the way the federal government keeps its records so that there's lots of people that really should be registered but aren't, I can't imagine that sloppiness has a preemptive effect" that would prevent a state from adopting its own laws to stop illegal immigration.
Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's first appointee to the Supreme Court, was not without criticism for parts of his administration's position and at one point observed that Verrilli's arguments were "not selling very well."
To be sure, the overall tone of Wednesday's hearing, dominated by conservative justices who hold a majority on the court, suggested the court would ultimately rule that states have a role in regulating illegal immigrants and that a significant part of the Arizona law should be upheld.
(The story corrects Sotomayor's age to 57)
(Reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Howard Goller and Todd Eastham)