The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Arizona immigration case on Monday showed a conciliatory streak within a divided court that could emerge again when the justices issue their climactic healthcare decision on Thursday.
What the Arizona compromise will augur for the most closely watched case of the term is anyone's guess. Yet the justices' evident search for common ground in the immigration ruling and a few other cases this term could portend a healthcare decision that does not predictably cleave along political lines.
Monday's decision, written by conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined in full by fellow conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and - notably - three liberals, struck down most of the Arizona measure intended to drive out illegal immigrants. The court also, as it upheld a controversial requirement for police stops of people suspected of being in the United States illegally, suggested limits on how long people may be detained.
Overall, the judgment was modest, the tone cautious. It underscored the federal role in regulating immigration and largely rejected the effort by Arizona - and, by extension, several other states - to institute sweeping measures to stop people from illegally crossing the border.
The justices' regard for national authority on dilemmas that cut across state boundaries could end up echoing in the healthcare ruling.
"Both problems transcend states' borders and are too big for the states to solve on their own," Duke University law professor Neil Siegel said, stressing that he did not want to predict how the court would rule on Thursday.
Even before the Arizona case, Roberts and some of his colleagues had taken steps to minimize differences based on politics and ideology. Earlier this term the justices issued unanimous, incremental decisions in disputes over Texas voting districts that civil rights advocates said would dilute Latino voting power; over when employees of churches and other religious organizations may sue for bias; and over constitutional safeguards for police use of GPS tracking devices.
While the court did not fully side with President Barack Obama's administration in the Arizona immigration battle, it gave the Democratic president more than might have been expected. "The case reaffirms the primacy of the federal government over immigration in broad strokes," said Temple University law professor Peter Spiro.
AN OLIVE BRANCH
In narrowly construing the provision requiring police to ask people they stop to verify their immigration status, Kennedy offered an olive branch to the administration and civil rights groups. He warned state authorities not to use the law to delay the release of people or to target minor offenders - for example, jaywalkers who cannot produce identification.