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Arizona immigration-status check backed by most high court justices

The Supreme Court justices, hearing arguments Wednesday on Arizona's tough immigration law, suggested they were inclined to uphold parts of the state's law but may well block others.

The Obama administration lawyer who wanted the entire law struck down ran into skeptical questions from most of the justices who said they saw no problem with requiring police officers to check the immigration status of people who are stopped.

But the justices also said they were troubled by parts of the Arizona law that made it a state crime for illegal immigrants to not carry documents or to seek work. The stop-and-arrest provision has been the most contested part of the law.

Before U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. could deliver his opening comments, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in an unusual move, interrupted to say that "no part of your argument has to do with racial or ethnic profiling."

Verrilli agreed and said Arizona's law should be struck down because it conflicts with the federal government's "exclusive" power concerning immigration.

But he ran into a barrage of skeptical questions, including from some of the court's liberals. Justice Stephen G. Breyer said he did not see how Arizona police would violate federal immigration law if they simply notified federal agents they had a possible illegal immigrant in custody. Breyer said he would be concerned only if the state said it could arrest and jail illegal aliens on its own.

Near the end of the argument, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an Obama appointee, advised Verrilli he needed a stronger argument than the ones he delivered. His argument "is not selling very well," she commented.

But the justices' comments also suggested the court may hand down a split decision. Most of the justices, including Roberts, said they were troubled by two parts of the Arizona law. One would make it a state crime for aliens not to carry documents. A second would make it a state crime for illegal aliens to look for work.

Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy said the two provisions appear to go beyond federal law and therefore could be blocked because they clash with federal law.

But the main provision at issue was the requirement that Arizona's police officers contact federal officials and check the immigration status of anyone who is lawfully stopped and appears to be an illegal immigrant.

A federal judge in Phoenix and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked that provision on the grounds that it would gave state officials the power to enforce federal immigration law.

Roberts and most of the justices said they disagreed with that interpretation.

"It doesn't require you to remove one more alien," the chief justice told Verrilli. Federal officials would be free to release anyone they decided against holding, he said.

While Justice Antonin Scalia seemed the most persistent supporter of Arizona's efforts, his views were at least shadowed by the questions posed by Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

"It seems to me the federal government just doesn't want to know who's here illegally and who's not," Roberts told Verrilli at one point.