Leading constitutional law professors say the chances of the measure's key educational sections being upheld are slim.
"This court is very serious about adhering to precedent in the absence of an overwhelming reason for change," said Prof. Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School.
However, some cautioned that the high court's action is not a foregone conclusion.
"There's always a possibility the court can simply draw on distinctions, and say it's a different case in California, when anyone who looks at it says these distinctions don't call for a different result," said UCLA law professor Julian Eule.
Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear--the parameters of debate about illegal immigration have shifted markedly.
When the Supreme Court issued its ruling, even the judges who dissented wrote that expelling students is "senseless for an enlightened society."
"It would be folly--and wrong--to tolerate creation of a segment of society made up of illiterate persons, many having a limited or no command of our language," declared then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, in a minority opinion joined by William H. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor, both of whom remain on the court.
The California State Board of Education, made up of people appointed or reappointed by Pro-187 Gov. Pete Wilson, has declined to take a stand on the ballot measure. But back when the Supreme Court was considering the Plyler case, the California board filed a legal brief in favor of the Texas schoolchildren. "It has never been demonstrated that education is more expensive than ignorance," the board wrote in 1981.
In recent times, Plyler has done some shifting himself. "If we don't provide education, children will be a greater burden and cost more in the long run," the retired Tyler school chief told The Times. "For taxpayers, it's either pay me now, or pay me later."
Tyler, a sleepy, sylvan East Texas city of 75,000, was home to roughly 40 undocumented youngsters back in the late 1970s.
When the state law first took effect, the city's school district ignored it, picking up the cost of educating the children itself.
But that policy proved short-lived. In July, 1977, school board members, fearing that the city would turn into a haven for illegal immigrants, ordered them to pay $1,000 a year in tuition. The fee was tantamount to expulsion. Most of the immigrants had jobs in Tyler foundries or restaurants, but their pay was no more than $4,000 a year.
The 1977 school year began Aug. 31, and Rosario Robles still recalls the rebuff she received that morning when she walked her children to school.
Robles and her husband, Jose, a pipe factory employee, had lived together in Tyler for five years. Despite being undocumented, they owned their own home and paid school taxes.
Yet at Bonner Elementary, they were told: No birth certificates, no school. The principal proceeded to place Rosario Robles and five of her children in his car and drive them back home, she said.
The family made immediate arrangements for some of their children to temporarily attend a parochial school, with Jose Robles doing yardwork at the school in exchange for tuition. They also turned to a Catholic Church outreach worker, Michael McAndrew, who contacted local civil rights lawyer Larry Daves.
Daves, in turn, phoned the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Within two days, MALDEF attorney Peter D. Roos flew from San Francisco to Tyler. Working through the Labor Day weekend, Roos filed a lawsuit on behalf of four willing families.
Judge Justice scheduled a hearing for three days later and, to limit publicity, set it for 6 a.m.
That morning, Lidia Lopez and her husband, Jose, packed their Dodge Monaco with all their worldly possessions for the pre-dawn drive to the courthouse, Lidia Lopez recalls. If Justice denied their suit out of hand, she says, they were prepared to be arrested and deported immediately.
The four families entered the courthouse through a side door and participated in the hearing with the translation assistance of McAndrew.
Judge Justice informed the parents that he had no right to withhold their names from the U.S. Justice Department. But department officials decided not to take action against the families so the lawsuit could proceed.
Two days later, Justice granted an injunction and eventually declared that Tyler's application of the law violated the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
However, the judge's decision applied only to the Tyler school district. So a rash of similar lawsuits were filed across the state. When a decision was made to combine these suits, Los Angeles immigration rights attorney Peter A. Schey was called in as lead lawyer. That case was decided in the children's favor by a federal district judge in Houston.
At the Supreme Court level, the two cases were combined into Plyler vs. Doe.