TUCSON — A federal judge has given opponents of Arizona's sweeping anti-illegal-immigration law access to emails, letters and memos between supporters of SB 1070 and legislators to see whether there are racial overtones in the messages.
In December, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton in Phoenix rejected arguments made by two of the law's supporters, who maintained that communications sent to lawmakers who created and supported SB 1070 were confidential.
Challengers to SB 1070 called Bolton's ruling a victory because their lawsuit was based partly on allegations that legislators meant to discriminate against Latinos and other people of color. If so, the challengers argue, the law could violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
This is just the latest twist in an ongoing dispute on the surviving and most divisive provision of Arizona's immigration enforcement law, considered the toughest state law against illegal immigration in the country. Both inside and outside Arizona, the measure generated scorn as well as praise, with some states using it as a model for their own immigration laws.
Bolton's ruling covers more than just the communications about SB 1070. Challengers also want to see emails, letters and memos related to the creation of earlier immigration measures. She did not set a deadline for turning over the emails.
In late December, the attorneys for two anti-illegal-immigration groups, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Immigration Reform Law Institute, filed a motion for the decision's reconsideration, which will probably bring the issue back before the same judge. The judge's order applies to emails from the two groups to legislators, as well as replies.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform and chairman of the board at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, criticized the decision, calling it an "invidious fishing expedition."
"It's broad and vastly intrusive and interferes with our 1st Amendment liberties to interact with public officials," Stein said.
Bolton rejected such arguments.
In the Dec. 11 ruling, she said there was nothing in the "law that protects from public view communications with public officials in their official capacity about a matter of public concern. Indeed, Arizona law makes all such communications available to the public under its freedom of information law."
SB 1070, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law in 2010, contained several measures intended to give local law enforcement more power to detain people who were in the country illegally.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of SB 1070 but allowed the most controversial portion to take effect: Arizona can compel law enforcement officials in most circumstances to check the status of someone they stop for lawful reasons if they suspect the person is in the country illegally.
Immigrant rights activists filed suit and have been battling in court since to have the provision blocked, claiming that the Arizona Legislature intended to discriminate against Latinos and other minorities.
Victor Viramontes, senior legal counsel with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the law's opponents subpoenaed communications that specifically mention certain words, including "day laborer," "alien," "Hispanic," "Mexican" and "wetback."
"We'll be looking for any kind of explicit derogatory depictions of Latinos," Viramontes said. "Anything with racial overtones with regards to Latinos or Mexicans and any kind of communication that suggests the true reason this law was passed, to target and discriminate against Latinos."