High court to weigh Arizona denial of some immigrants’ driver’s licenses

The Supreme Court is set to decide Tuesday whether Arizona must issue driver’s licenses to young immigrants who were brought to this country illegally and then shielded from deportation by President Obama.

The justices have before them an emergency appeal from outgoing Gov. Jan Brewer, who argues that the state has the right to decide who gets a driver’s license.

The case is the first to reach the high court since Obama extended a temporary shield from deportation to include up to 5 million additional immigrants who have been living illegally in the U.S.


It also raises the question about whether such immigrants -- who are to be given work permits under Obama’s program -- have a “lawful status” in the country that entitles them to a driver’s license.

In July, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and said the state may not discriminate against the young immigrants, dubbed “dreamers,” by denying them a driver’s license. Prior to 2012, the state routinely authorized driver’s licenses for non-citizens who had federal work permits.

But after the Obama administration began deferring deportation of the “dreamers,” Arizona changed its policy. Brewer issued an order calling for “no driver’s licenses for illegal people.”

Her action triggered the lawsuit that reached the 9th Circuit. In a decision by Judge Harry Pregerson, that court found that the young people had been authorized to stay and to work, and that their “presence in the United States is authorized under federal law.” Therefore, Pregerson said, the state may not single them out for discrimination. Doing so violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws, the court said in a 3-0 decision.

Pregerson also noted that as a practical matter, the young immigrants would have a hard time working in Arizona if they could not obtain a driver’s license.

In their emergency appeal, Arizona’s lawyers pointed to statements by Justice Department lawyers who said that immigrants protected temporarily from deportation “lack lawful status in the United States.”

They said the high court should make clear that the state had the authority to decide who will obtain a driver’s license.

The appeal was filed with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who handles emergency actions from the 9th Circuit. He in turn asked for a response by noon EST on Tuesday from the lawyers for the Arizona Dream Act Coalition.

Once all the briefs are filed, the justices are likely to issue a short order to grant or deny Arizona’s appeal.

Twitter: @DavidGSavage