WASHINGTON — — Supporters of the controversial new Maryland law to extend in-state tuition discounts to illegal immigrants cheered the Supreme Court's refusal Monday to take up a challenge to a similar law in California.
Advocates for undocumented students in Maryland said the high court's action reinforced their position that the state was on solid legal footing when it approved the law, and suggested it would make it harder for opponents to challenge the measure in court.
"Opponents for a long time painted this issue as unconstitutional and said that we were violating federal law," said state Sen. Victor Ramirez, the Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "And they were wrong."
Opponents said the court action would have no impact on their efforts to overturn the law. Del. Neil Parrott, who is leading a petition drive to submit the measure directly to voters next year, said he did not anticipate the decision will undermine the momentum he said is building against the law.
"This weekend we had volunteers all over the state, and we're very encouraged by the support we're getting," the Washington County Republican said. "We're confident that the people of Maryland are not going to support this bill."
The Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to a 2001 California law that extends in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants who attend a high school in California for three years and graduate — similar to the law approved in Maryland and 10 other states. The court did not issue a formal ruling, and the justices did not explain why they declined to consider the case.
By not hearing the case, the Supreme Court let stand a California court's decision to uphold the law.
Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis, cautioned against drawing conclusions about the court's view of legislation in states beyond California. But he said the decision does demonstrate that, for now, the nation's highest court isn't interested in pursuing the issue.
"I do think that the setting of in-state and out-of-state tuition is viewed as a power of the state, and one in which the Supreme Court is not likely … to interfere," he said.
Maryland's law, which was approved by the General Assembly in April and signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in May, was based largely on the California measure. It permits undocumented students who have completed at least three years of high school in Maryland and whose parents have paid state taxes to attend a public college or university for the in-state tuition rate.
A student would be required to start at a community college; after completing 60 credits, he or she could transfer to a four-year college. Given current tuition rates, a participant could save $6,000 a year at a community college, and more than $15,000 per year at a four-year institution such as the University of Maryland, College Park.
Legislative analysts say the program will cost the state $3.5 million annually by 2016.
Opponents said Monday that they are well on their way to collecting the 55,736 signatures they need by the end of June to force a referendum on the law in 2012. If they succeed, the law would be suspended until the referendum is held.
The groups cleared an initial hurdle May 31, presenting far more than the 18,579 signatures needed to keep their effort alive. The State Board of Elections had validated nearly 18,000 of those signatures by Monday.
Del. Patrick L. McDonough, also a vocal critic of the Maryland law, said that the court's action would not affect his plan to file a lawsuit — most likely in federal court — once the petition drive is completed. The Baltimore County Republican said he believes the court wants to rule on a case that "covers more ground and has more depth" than the California case.
"We are preparing that lawsuit," McDonough said. "We are not concerned about the court's position on that particular lawsuit."
The conservative, Washington-based group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit in Maryland Circuit Court earlier this year alleging that the Montgomery County community college system violated state and federal law by offering in-state tuition to undocumented students. That case is pending and will not be affected by the Supreme Court's decision.
Thomas Fitton, the group's president, also said he did not believe Monday's decision would affect whether the group will file a new, more broad challenge to Maryland's law.
"Our view is that when states take actions to undermine the rule of law, as we believe this new state law would do, it deserves a skeptical look," he said. "We'll be bringing a skeptical look."
Advocates for undocumented students countered that the Supreme Court's action sent an important message.
The move "is good news for supporters of in-state tuition," argued Wendy Sefsaf, a spokeswoman with the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center. "It's also good news for those who believe these young students who were brought to the U.S. at a young age and educated in our schools should be able to finish their educations so they can be more productive and contributing citizens."
Maryland's measure "is absolutely lawful under federal law," Kim Propeack, of the immigration advocacy group CASA de Maryland, said in a statement. "The California decision is just one more in a litany of court findings making that declaration."