Iowa Supreme Court argument recap: Justices keep cards close to the vest in immigration case

by Rox Laird | October 20, 2016

It is hard to predict where the Iowa Supreme Court might go with an immigration case argued Thursday based on the questions directed at the opposing lawyers.

Martha Martinez, who came to the United States at the age of 11, is being tried in Muscatine County on felony charges of forgery and identity theft. She argues that the state charges against her should be thrown out because federal immigration law preempts the state criminal laws used in her case. (See our earlier post for more background on Martinez’s appeal.)

Only Justices Edward Mansfield and Brent Appel engaged in significant dialogue with Martinez’s counsel, Philip Mears of Iowa City, and Assistant Attorney General Darryl Mullins representing the State of Iowa. And those exchanges ventured little beyond the legal arguments covered by the briefs.

Justice Mansfield, for example, probed Mears on the question of why a U.S. citizen could be prosecuted for violating Iowa’s forgery and identity theft laws but not an undocumented immigrant. Mansfield wondered: Does Iowa not have a duty to enforce its laws for citizens and noncitizens alike?

Mears responded that there are other instances where federal law preempts states from enforcing state law against some people but not others. He cited an example of federal preemption in the case of banks that are regulated by the federal government versus those regulated by the states.

Justice Appel repeatedly sought to drill into the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Arizona vs. United States in which the Court struck down Arizona state criminal statutes aimed at curbing illegal immigration.

Appel wanted to know where to draw the line between enforcement of federal versus state laws. He cited the example of how federal prosecutors have discretion to enforce federal drug crimes and states have discretion to prosecute state drug crimes. He asked Mears: How is your case different?

Mears’ response: The U.S. Supreme Court said in the Arizona case there is something special reserved to the federal government with respect to federal immigration law. The Supreme Court in that case said just working without proper documentation cannot be criminalized by the state.

Justice Thomas Waterman asked Mears whether any court has ruled that a state criminal law is preempted in the way Martinez urges the Iowa Court to rule?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has done that in a case having to do with driver’s licenses, Mears responded.

At that point, Waterman said he questions whether President Barack Obama’s creation of the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” by executive order would meet that test. “I am troubled by the notion that the president by executive order could preempt state law,” he said.

In the end, the only way to know for sure what the justices think of Martinez’s arguments will come when the court issues a ruling during its 2016-17 term.


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