The court will review a federal appeals-court ruling that blocked several provisions in the Arizona law. One of those requires that police, while enforcing other laws, question a person's immigration status if officers suspect he or she is in the country illegally.
The case is the court's biggest foray into immigration law in decades, said Temple University law professor Peter Spiro, an expert in that area.
The Obama administration challenged the Arizona law by arguing that regulating immigration is the job of the federal government, not states. Similar laws in Alabama, South Carolina and Utah also are facing administration lawsuits. Private groups are suing over immigration measures adopted in Georgia and Indiana.
Fifty-nine Republicans in Congress, including presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, filed a brief with the court backing the Arizona law.
The immigration case, like the challenge to Obama's health-care overhaul, pits Republican-led states against the Democratic administration in an argument about the reach of federal power. The administration argued that the justices should have waited to see how other courts ruled on the challenges to other laws before getting involved. Still, following the court's announcement yesterday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "We look forward to arguing our point of view in that case when the time comes."
Spiro said the court easily could have passed on the Arizona case for now. "They could have waited for the more extreme case to come from Alabama, which really outflanked the Arizona law," Spiro said.
He predicted the court would uphold the police check of immigration status but perhaps not the measure making it a crime to be without immigration documents.
Arguments probably will take place in late April.