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Supreme Court Strikes Arizona Voting Law But Opens Door

DENVER - A western, public-interest legal foundation on June 17 responded to the 7-2 ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States upholding a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, that struck down an Arizona voter-approved ballot initiative requiring proof of citizenship to vote (Arizona, et al. v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona Inc., et al., No. 12-71, U.S. Sup.) [ subscribers may read the enhanced opinion and access the Supreme Court briefs in this case].

  Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), with years of experience arguing constitutional cases, had urged the court to uphold the law and earlier had advised the en banc panel that the law is constitutional and not preempted by federal law.  Even earlier, MSLF urged the Ninth Circuit to rehear the 2-1 ruling by a Ninth Circuit three-judge panel—which included former Justice O’Connor—that reversed a 2008 ruling by an Arizona district court (Gonzalez v. State of Arizona, No. 08-17094 [9th Cir.]) [enhanced opinion available to subscribers].  The Arizona court, after 1.5 years of discovery, a six-day trial, and post-trial briefing, upheld the law.  The en banc panel held that Proposition 200’s voting requirements did not violate the Voting Rights Act or Equal Protection Clause but conflicted with the National Voting Rights Act.  MSLF urged Supreme Court to hear the case. 

“Although the Court ruled that federal law preempts the Arizona law, the Court also showed the manner in which States may protect the ballot box and still comply with federal law,” said MSLF president William Perry Pendley.

In November 2004, by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, Arizona voters approved Proposition 200 to address the burden imposed on Arizona citizens by the payment of public benefits to illegal aliens.  These benefits are believed, by some, to exceed $1 billion a year, or $700 for each Arizona household.  Proposition 200 strengthens enforcement of existing laws related to illegal immigration by requiring all who register to vote or apply for “state” public benefits—excluding emergency medical assistance, non-cash emergency disaster relief, and public health assistance for immunizations and testing/treatment of communicable diseases—to prove citizenship.

Proposition 200 creates a verification process to enforce current laws that prohibit state and local governments from providing non-essential public benefits to illegal aliens.  This process has been used since 1996 to verify eligibility for federal benefits, but Arizona became the first State to require presentation of a designated identity document at the voting polls.

In November 2004, the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) contested Proposition 200’s constitutionality in a lawsuit that was dismissed by the Ninth Circuit in August 2005.  In May 2006, MALDEF and others challenged Proposition 200’s registration and identification provisions.  In October 2006, the Ninth Circuit enjoined those provisions; however, the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently reversed. 

Mountain States Legal Foundation, founded in 1977, is a nonprofit, public-interest legal foundation dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government, and the free enterprise system.  Its offices are in suburban Denver.

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