SCOTUS Disallows Vague Deportation Rule

After hearing arguments on a federal law calling for the deportation of immigrants convicted of violent crimes, the Supreme Court ruled the law as unenforceable due to its vagueness. With the decision, federal officials lose some leverage in their ability to deport immigrants convicted of certain types of crimes.

With the decision, immigrant advocates say individuals caught up in the criminal justice system gain their due process rights. Joshua Rosenkranz, an attorney arguing for the defendant in the case, told The New York Times that the law struck down by the court was flawed with repercussions “that applies in a vast range of criminal and immigration cases and which has resulted in many thousands of immigrants being deported for decades.”

The case, Sessions v. Dimaya, 15-1498 concerned James Dimaya, a Filipino native who became a lawful permanent resident in 1992 at the age of 13. In 2007 and in 2009, criminal courts convicted Dimaya on residential burglary charges.

With the convictions, government officials sought Dimaya’s deportation, arguing his convictions amounted to an “aggravated felony,” according to The New York Times. Under immigration law, “aggravated felony” includes offenses involving a “substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”

Supreme Court justices originally heard Dimaya’s case in January 2017. At the time, only 8 justices sat on the court after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the justices deadlocked in the case. With the addition of Justice Neil Gorsuch, nominated to the court by President Donald Trump, attorneys again argued the case to the court in October.

With Justice Gorsuch’s vote, the court ruling came in at 5-4.  Interestingly, Justice Gorsuch’s vote sided with the more liberal members of the bench, including Justice Elena Kagan. Justice Kagan wrote the majority decision for case, saying lower courts imposed the law in question inconsistently.

“Does car burglary qualify as a violent felony,” the justice asked in her written decision. “Some courts say yes, another says no. What of statutory rape? Once again, the circuits part ways. How about evading arrest? The decision point in different directions. Residential trespass? The same is true.”

For his part, Justice Gorsuch wrote in his concurring opinion, “Vague laws invite arbitrary power.”

Attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) argued in favor of maintaining the law as it currently appears on the books. The failure to do so, they argued, undercuts efforts to remove foreign-born individuals convicted of violent crimes from the United States.

“By preventing the federal government from removing known criminal aliens,” DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton said in response to the ruling, “it allows our nation to be a safe haven for criminals and makes us more vulnerable as a result.”