The Obama administration is nothing if not bold in deciding to sue the state of Arizona over its new immigration law. The Washington Post notes:

In challenging a state law, federal lawyers stepped squarely into the politically charged debate over how to handle the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Reaction to the suit poured in from all sides, much of it blistering, making it clear that this was no ordinary legal filing but rather the start of a battle that will help define the midterm elections this fall.

“Not only does this lawsuit reveal the Obama administration’s contempt for immigration laws and the people of Arizona, it reveals contempt for the majority of the American people who support Arizona’s efforts,” 20 House Republicans said in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who administration officials said decided last week to challenge the law. President Obama, who had voiced strong opposition to the legislation, was briefed in the past few days, officials said.

The legal issue, as defined in the suit, is quite precise: Does the Arizona law preempt, or usurp, federal law? If it does, the state loses. Important constitutional scholars have come down on both sides of the issue. This is a case that has a good chance of making it to the Supreme Court, and I agree with Commentary’s Jennifer Rubin that it’s a good thing that we are going to hash this out in court. But I also agree with Rich Lowry that the lawsuit is a political act:

 In his immigration speech last week, Pres. Barack Obama warned ominously of a “patchwork” of immigration laws arising as “states and localities go their own ways.” Oddly enough, sanctuary cities acting in open defiance of immigration laws have never notably been the object of his wrath. Who’s to judge the good-hearted people of Berkeley? There’s only one part of the dismaying patchwork that stirs Obama’s cabinet to outrage, and his attorney general to legal action – Arizona’s commitment to enforcement.

 Rubin, who seems to concur with the notion that Arizona is “ginning up” its own immigration policy (I don’t), admits that there is a practical aspect: no matter which side wins, the borders still won’t be secure. Whatever the constitutional resolution, Arizona was pushed to enacting the law for the simple reason that the federal government, for whatever reasons, won’t secure the borders.

 It’s rare that we see a fight between a state and the federal government on an issue this highly-charged. The matter of the federal government’s authority versus that of the states is one that has hovered over the nation since this administration came into office. Yes, it would be quite possible to conclude that this lawsuit is right and still maintain that the federal government has seized overweening power in too many other facets of our lives. But the lawsuit is bound to force discussion of the authority of these two entities, the central and state governments.