November 13, 2010

You’ll probably be hearing about this opinion Monday

Supreme Court decisions are by definition important, but they don’t always gain widespread attention. One opinion that likely will be in the mainstream news files Monday morning. In Martinez v. Regents of University of California, the court will decide the validity of a state statute allowing undocumented aliens and other nonresidents to pay in-state tuition for postsecondary education if they attend and graduate from a California high school.

UPDATE: The Supreme Court’s opinion is now posted. In a decision authored by Justice Chin, the court unanimously upholds the statute, stressing that the court “does not make policy. Whether Congress’s prohibition [against states making unlawful aliens eligible for postsecondary education benefits under certain circumstances] or the Legislature’s exemption [of unlawful aliens from paying nonresident tuition under certain circumstances] is good policy is not for us to say. Rather, we must decide the legal question of whether California’s exemption violates Congress’s prohibition or is otherwise invalid.”

The court’s opinion also includes an explanation of why it uses the term “unlawful alien” to describe the students at issue:

“Defendants and supporting amici curiae generally refer to a person not lawfully in this country by a term such as ‘undocumented immigrant.’ Plaintiffs and supporting amici curiae generally use the term ‘illegal alien,’ as did the Court of Appeal. The term ‘undocumented immigrant’ is vague and is not used in the relevant statutes. It is also euphemistic, because it is unlawful to be in this country and to be undocumented in the sense in which defendants use the term. On the other hand, some view the term ‘illegal alien’ as pejorative. Wishing to be as neutral, yet as accurate, as possible in our terminology, we turn to the most relevant statutes for assistance. [California Education Code] [s]ection 68130.5, subdivision (a)(4), uses the phrase ‘a person without lawful immigration status.’ The federal provisions, sections 1621(d) and 1623(a) [of 8 U.S.C.], use the phrase ‘an alien who is not lawfully present in the United States.’ Both of these phrases are too bulky to be used continually. We believe it best to shorten these phrases to the two-word term ‘unlawful alien.’ Accordingly, we will use that term in this opinion.”

Maura Dolan of the Los Angeles Times blogs that the opinion may not be the final word on the subject: “The U.S. Supreme Court is expected eventually to decide whether the lower tuition rates violate federal law.”

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