By Alia Beard Rau, The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- State officials have spent nearly $3 million defending Arizona's controversial immigration law against three separate lawsuits over the past two years.
Most of the money has come from private donations, not public coffers. But with lawsuits expected to continue even after the U.S. Supreme Court issues its ruling -- which could come as early as Monday -- that could change.
Seven groups originally filed lawsuits challenging the law, SB 1070. Three lawsuits are still working their way through the courts, including the U.S. Department of Justice's case before the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is only ruling on a preliminary injunction that halted four parts of the law from taking effect. They include: requiring an officer to check immigration status in certain situations, making the failure to carry "alien-registration documents" a crime, forbidding illegal immigrants from working and allowing some warrantless arrests.
The law was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in April 2010, but those sections have been blocked by legal challenges.
The Governor's Office hired outside legal counsel to oversee most of the defense in the federal government's lawsuit. It is paying the attorneys with private donations made to a legal-defense fund Brewer set up in 2010. About 45,000 donations brought in $3.8 million.
Paul Bender, a professor at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, said the attorney fees are not out of line for a case of this magnitude.
"Legal fees these days have just gone crazy," he said. "Snell & Wilmer has an army of associates working on this thing, and the bills really mount up."
But Bender questioned why the state isn't using taxpayer money to defend the law.
"If the reason for passing the statute were reasons that were important to almost all of the people in the state, you would think the state would pick up the cost of defending it," Bender said. "When the state starts getting outside contributions to defend the statute, the suggestion is that it's a statute that outside people want."
Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said the legal-defense fund proves there is widespread support for the law.
"It's almost $4 million from private donors from every state in the country," he said. "It has allowed Governor Brewer to defend this immigration law, and do so at no cost to the taxpayers."
He dismissed critics who say the legal fight is a waste of time, energy and money.
"What price would you put on the safety of the Arizona people?" he asked. "What value would you place on Arizona's right to defend itself as a sovereign state?"
Arizona taxpayers have paid for some of the bill's defense. The Arizona Attorney General's Office did some work on the Justice Department case. It also is handling the state's legal defense in the other two lawsuits.
Brewer also has spent thousands of dollars from her legal-defense fund on other costs related to defending the law. According to her office, she has spent $41,802 in credit-card fees, $790 in miscellaneous expenses and $14,328 in travel expenses.
The travel expenses include sending Brewer, her community-affairs director and two in-house attorneys to San Francisco for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hearing in the Justice Department case. Brewer, her community-affairs director, Benson and one attorney also traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Supreme Court hearing.
It could take years -- and a few more trips to San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- to resolve legal challenges surrounding the law.
Bender, the ASU law professor, said the Supreme Court ruling will determine if and to what extent these cases and future challenges will move forward.
"The preliminary injunction really is the case," he said. "If the court were to say the whole law is unconstitutional -- which it won't -- that would be the end of the case."
But if the Supreme Court allows one or all of the four enjoined parts to go into effect, Bender said, plaintiffs could refocus legal challenges on the impacts, such as possible allegations of racial profiling.
Benson said the state continues to raise money through the legal-defense fund and will keep defending the law at all levels.
"We recognize at some point that the fund may dwindle and legal challenges may continue, but that's not something we have control over," he said. "The opponents of SB 1070 are determined to thwart this law."