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Arizona v. United States

Citation. 567 U.S. 387 (2012)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Arizona passed a law regulating immigration, including areas of immigration law that the federal government also regulated.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Under the Supremacy Clause, federal law is the supreme law of the land, and it has the power to preempt state law. Federal law can preempt state law by enacting a statute that expressly preempts state law. It can also preempt state law in at least two other instances.

The first is where Congress, within its authority, has determined that something must be regulated exclusively by Congress itself. In Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp, the Court held that courts can infer Congress’ intent to displace state law from a framework of regulation that is so pervasive that state law has no room to add to it.

Second, federal law preempts state law that conflicts with federal law. In Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, the Court held that this includes situations in which compliance with both federal and state law would be impossible. In Hines v. Davidowitz, the Court held that state law and federal law also conflict where state law hinders the accomplishment of the purposes and objectives of Congress.

Express preemption provisions do not prohibit the application of typical preemption principles, or impose a heightened burden of showing preemption of laws not included in the provision. Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., 529 U.S. 861, 869-872 (2000)


Arizona passed S.B. 1070. Section 3 of this law made it a state misdemeanor to fail to comply with federal immigrant registration requirements. Section 5 of the law made it a misdemeanor for undocumented immigrants to seek or engage in work. The federal government filed suit to enjoin Arizona from enforcing these and other provisions of S.B. 1070.


Did federal law preempt Sections 3 and 5 of S.B. 1070?


Yes, federal law preempted Sections 3 and 5 of S.B. 1070.

Affirmed in part and reversed in part.


Justice Scalia

S.B. 1070 concerned Arizona’s right to exclude, which is critical to state sovereignty. State law does not conflict with federal law simply because there is federal law regulating the same issue.

Justice Thomas

The text of the state and federal laws here did not conflict, but it was also unconstitutional to analyze preemption based on the purposes and objectives of Congress, because it encouraged speculation of legislative intent.

Justice Alito

IRCA did not preempt Section 5 of S.B. 1070, and Congress might have even intended states to pass laws like Section 5. Justice Alito argued that the fact that IRCA expressly preempted similar regulation of employers but not undocumented employees could imply that Congress intended to reserve states’ right to regulate undocumented employees.


Federal law preempted Section 3 of S.B. 1070 because Congress had enacted a framework that implied that the federal government occupied the field of immigrant registration.

Federal law also preempted Section 5 of S.B. 1070. Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire undocumented workers. IRCA had an express preemption provision that prevented states from penalizing employers of undocumented immigrants. The preemption provision did not address the penalization of employees. However, Section 5 would interfere with Congress’ purposes and objectives, because the text and history of IRCA indicated that Congress did not want to impose criminal penalties on immigrants seeking unauthorized employment.

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