The Supreme Court issued two smart rulings on Monday, one striking down most of Arizona's constitutionally reckless immigration law and the other prohibiting automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.
Regarding immigration, the court struck down three parts of the state's controversial law, and while it allowed the centerpiece to stand, it made clear that even that provision may be further litigated.
In a 5-3 ruling, the justices rejected Arizona's bid to make it a state crime for illegal immigrants to fail to carry government registration papers or to solicit work. It also struck down a portion of the law giving police an ability to arrest illegal immigrants without a warrant.
Unanimously, the court did approve the main part of the law, which requires state and local police to check the immigration status of people they've stopped or detained if they have "reasonable suspicion." However, the court noted that "there is a basic uncertainty about what the law means and how it will be enforced." Once that becomes clear, further litigation is not only possible, but virtually guaranteed.
In particular, that "reasonable suspicion" standard seems likely to produce challenges. What is it that would make a cop reasonably suspicious that someone is an illegal immigrant crying out to be arrested? His skin color? Language? Clothing? Fairly applied, this is a law that will not be able to produce many arrests. It will be back in court.
The bigger problem here is that Washington has not fulfilled its obligation to strengthen and improve immigration law, which is a federal, not state, responsibility. And, as is too frequently the case these days, it is the Republican right that is blocking efforts to craft a fair solution, such as those proposed by President Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The ruling has also complicated Mitt Romney's efforts to walk back from his own extremist position on immigration, a position he repeatedly staked out during the primaries. Now he has to respond to the ruling, while simultaneously appealing to Hispanic voters who distrust him and the Republican base that wants nothing to do with sensible immigration reform, but whose support he needs.
In the other ruling, decided in a 5-4 vote – closer than it should have been – the court decided that it is cruel and unusual to impose automatic sentences of life without parole on murderers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes.
State and federal courts generally have moved too far in removing discretion from judges who are, after all, supposed to judge. The Supreme Court struck down laws in 29 states that prohibited judges from considering mitigating circumstances.
Juveniles convicted of murder can still be sentenced to long sentences and even life without parole, as long as the judge considers relevant issues before imposing the sentence.
Given the facts of adolescence, that is a reasonable standard. It preserves the harshest sentence where it is warranted, while requiring judges to take account of contributing factors and, ultimately, do their jobs.