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Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Alabama's Immigration Law and the Contracts Clause

Constitution  On September 28, 2011, Judge Blackburn of the Northern District of Alabama upheld against federal challenge most of Alabama's new immigration law, proclaimed to be the "toughest in the nation" when it comes to undocumented aliens.  The case is United States v. State of Alabama and the opinion is here (Thank you, thank you, New York Times!  Why do so few organizations provide links to public legal documents?!?).

Among the challenged provisions of the law was Section 27, which bars courts from enforcing contracts with undocumented aliens, assuming the other party to the contract knows of that immigration status.  The federal government challenged this section as preempted by federal immigration laws.  Judge Blackburn spent less than a page on the topic, finding that no federal law specifically addresses the enforceability of contracts with undocumented aliens.  She therefore refused to preliminarily enjoin the enforcement of Section 27. 

Why no Contracts Clause challenge?  Even given that such claims are very difficult to win, it seems like the sort of situation where at least some consideration ought to be given to the Clause.  After all, the language of the Constitution seems to clearly prohibit states from interfering with contractual obligations.  But the Constitution does not mean what is seems to mean (anymore).  In Energy Reserves Group, Inc. v. Kansas Power & Light, the Supreme Court ruled that even if state action amounts to "substantial impairment" of private contracts, such laws can be justified if designed to address a significant and legitimate public purpose, such as remedying a broad or general social or economic problem.  Since the states are not involved in the contracts at issue, courts are generally to defer to the legislature's judgment as to the appropriateness of the chosen remedy.

[JT]

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