(CN) - Once 9th Circuit Judge Carlos Bea focused on what he called the "very strange language" found in an Arizona immigration law, the state's lawyer had no chance to come up for air.
Arizona went before the three-judge panel Tuesday to challenge the preliminary injunction that halts enforcement of parts of Arizona Senate Bill 1070. Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law, known as Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, in 2010.
One provision blocked by the injunction would make it unlawful for a person "who is in violation of a criminal offense" to transport, conceal or harbor an illegal alien, or encourage or induce an illegal alien to go to or live in Arizona.
Bea seized on the language of this provision. "A person who is in violation, not of a statute, not of a law, but of a criminal offense," he said. "How do you violate an offense? I mean, isn't that sort of an absurd way of writing that?"
Arizona attorney Kelly Kszywienski replied: "I didn't construe it that way. I think it means a violation of any criminal offense."
Judge John Noonan then interrupted: "How do you construe it differently?"
"You know we sent an order to you asking you to respond, and you missed the point," he continued. "I don't know how. We said, 'What does this mean? Violate a criminal offense? How do you violate an offense? Just spell it out, please.'"
That remark referred to an order the court filed just last week, asking Arizona to brief its explanation of that language.
Kszywienski tried to respond, but Noonan pressed on.
"Let's look at the words," he said. "How do you violate an offense? Do you know what the word 'offense' means?"
Finally able to chime in, Kszywienski said, "Yes, and violate a 'statute' would be better wording."
But Noonan quickly jumped in again.
"No, not better wording, because it's nonsense as it stands," he said.
When Kszywienski started again with, "When I read the statute," Noonan continued: "You are misreading the statute, and we are asking you now, having given you a week to think about it, what does it mean to violate a crime?"
Kszywienski eventually had to admit that she did not know how one violates an offense.
Noonan said, though, that the incomprehensibility of the law may still work in Arizona's favor. He reasoned that the injunction relies on the possibility that the law, if applied, could unlawfully harm the plaintiffs.
If the law makes no sense, however, it cannot be enforced, he said.
When Kszywienski laughed, Noonan advised her to concede the point.
"Your understanding must be anchored to the words of the statute and can't be something cooked up by you in your mind," he said.
The pointed interrogation continued until Bea interjected to throw Kszywienski "a lifeline."
Bea asked if Arizona believed the District Court had properly interpreted the phrase as meaning a violation of a criminal statute, and whether the 9th Circuit should defer to that interpretation.
"I do believe so, your honor," Kszywienski responded.