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Supreme Court Makes 3 Key Rulings


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

It's been a busy morning at the Supreme Court. Justices released several opinions, including a ruling on Arizona's controversial immigration law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. That law gave police broad powers to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand their papers, but civil rights groups said it went too far and gave states too much authority over immigration policy.

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins us from the Supreme Court to explain this and other rulings. Good morning.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, that - this law is what's known as - this Arizona law, as the Show Me Your Papers law. Tell us more about what's in it.

TOTENBERG: Well, it's actually quite a comprehensive law to regulate immigration, everything from making it a misdemeanor to fail to register with the federal government as being illegally in the country to giving state offices the authority to arrest somebody who they suspect is illegally in the country. Now, the court struck down almost all of this law, key provisions of this law. It left in place - sort of - the so-called Show Me Your Papers law, which says that in the course of an otherwise legal stop, if you suspect that somebody is illegally in the country, you can do a check to see if they are illegally in the country.

And under Arizona's interpretation so far, that means you can take them off to the local jail until you can get it straightened out. And the court said: If we construe this law as being that you can stop them, check their status if you can't, on the site, know what it is, you can find out later what their status is. But you have to release them. If we interpret it that way, it's OK. But we're leaving that to the state courts to make sure that that isn't the - that's the interpretation.

In other words, the courts sort of upheld it, but with a warning shot over the bow, saying we're going to interpret this as narrowly as possible. And as long as that is the case, we'll let you do the minimum. But the rest of the law, gone on a five-to-three vote.

MONTAGNE: How did that five-to-three vote break down? Tell us about the dissent.

TOTENBERG: Well, it's five to three because Justice Kagan was solicitor general in the Obama administration when this case first started making its way through the courts. So she was recused. There were two conservatives, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, the author of the opinion, plus three liberals. That's the five. The three dissenters to all or part of the majority opinion were Justice Scalia, Justice Alito and Justice Thomas.

And Justice Scalia made a very impassioned dissent from the bench, in which he blasted even the president's DREAM Act order of last week, and said that if the original colonies had known the states didn't have the power to regulate immigration in this way, they never would have joined up in the Union.

MONTAGNE: Let's go on. We just have a moment to go on to another ruling, and I'm thinking of the Montana case that involved campaign finance. Is there a brief way to describe that ruling?

TOTENBERG: Yes. The court said: We meant what we said in Citizens United two years ago when we struck down almost all of the McCain-Feingold law and about a century of understanding that corporations couldn't spend money on candidate elections. And Montana's Supreme Court said: Well, that doesn't apply to us in this state because we have a history of corruption, and our state laws prevent this in state races. And the court reversed the Montana Supreme Court and said, no. I'm sorry. We meant what we said. It applies to everyone.

And lastly, Renee, I should say that the court also, in a five-to-four opinion, said that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole on a mandatory basis, that that violates the Constitution's "cruel and unusual punishment" clause, that juveniles, of course, can be sentenced to prison for a life without parole, but it can't be a mandatory punishment, that you have to be able to consider other - consider the factors of youth when you're sentencing a kid to life without parole.

MONTAGNE: Nina, thanks very much. NPR's legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.