The federal judge who will decide whether to block Arizona’s sweeping new immigration law has dealt with the realities of the state’s porous border for nearly 10 years.
Susan Bolton sentenced a Mexican smuggler to 16 years in prison for leading 14 illegal immigrants to their death in the broiling Arizona desert.
She decided in 2002 that Border Patrol officials had legal immunity and couldn’t be sued for their part in a 1997 immigrant roundup that led to 430 arrests and drew complaints that Hispanics who were U.S. citizens were harassed because of their appearance.
Now Bolton, a former state court judge appointed to the federal bench in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, finds herself in the thick of the biggest question in immigration in years: Whether states frustrated with federal border efforts can dig into the fight against illegal immigration.
“I think she would be the best judge to have on this type of case,” said retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields, describing Bolton as a down-the-middle jurist with a knack for handling complex cases while possessing rich judicial experience that includes stints in criminal, civil, family, juvenile and drug courts.
Arizona’s new law requires police, while enforcing other laws, to question a person’s immigration status if officers have a reasonable suspicion that the person is in the country illegally. Seven lawsuits have been filed challenging the measure, which is set to take effect July 29 unless Bolton blocks it.
Its supporters say it’s necessary because the federal government has failed to secure the borders and deport illegal immigrants. Opponents say there’s no way to enforce the law without racially profiling Hispanics, and that immigration enforcement is the sole responsibility of the federal government.
The stakes are incredibly high. If Bolton rules in Arizona’s favor, it opens the door to states taking on issues that have long been the responsibility of the federal government.
Bolton has ruled in two cases unrelated to immigration that federal law trumps state law.
In 2008, Bolton threw out a claim by a woman who alleged her employer broke a federal law on overtime pay. The woman made the claim under federal law but sought more generous damages under a state law dictating when an employee is to be paid. The judge threw out her claim under state law.
Three years earlier, in a lawsuit from a woman who claimed she was harmed by taking a cold medicine, Bolton ruled that a state law immunizing drug makers from most punitive damages in product liability cases was superseded by federal law.
Bolton has declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press about the Arizona law.
Bolton was born in 1951 and raised in Philadelphia, earned her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Iowa and clerked for a state appeals court judge in Arizona. During her 11 years as an attorney in private practice, she co-authored a book that provides legal and clinical perspectives on violence in families.
She was appointed to the state bench in 1989 by Democratic Gov. Rose Mofford. When she was considered for a state Supreme Court post several years later, she was listed as an Independent. Her current voter registration records have been sealed.
Many lawyers who pressed cases in her court praised Bolton’s meticulous reading of their filings. She asks tough questions, they said, and can handle the mountain of paper that’s coming from the seven challenges to the law.
“I always felt like I got a fair shake out of her, even if she didn’t rule my way,” said Ed Novak, the former president of the State Bar of Arizona.
But Bolton’s decisions haven’t always been popular. In 2000, she struck from the ballot a land-preservation proposal advanced by the Arizona Legislature. The measure was a bid to counter a similar proposal by environmentalists that remained on the ballot.
Bolton said the Legislature’s proposal violated a state constitutional requirement that ballot measures cannot cover more than one subject.
Critics called Bolton an activist judge, and accused her of working with the environmentalists to torpedo the Legislature’s option.
“It seemed to me that it was more of a political decision than a decision based on fact,” said Rusty Bowers, then the Senate majority leader.
Bolton’s decision was reversed by the Arizona Supreme Court, and the measure appeared on the ballot and was defeated.
Paul Charlton, Arizona’s top federal prosecutor from 2001 to 2007, said the criticism was unfair.
“It would be a mistake to put any kind of label on her,” Charlton said. “This is someone who is not concerned with external political issues.”
In any case, the lawyers in her courtroom shouldn’t count on Bolton cutting them slack.
When government attorneys asked earlier this month for a last-minute hearing on whether to block Arizona’s immigration law, Bolton called it laughable.
Under their timetable, Bolton would’ve had just 60 hours before the law took effect to decide whether to block it.
“That is completely unrealistic,” Bolton said, instead setting the hearing for this week.