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November 3, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Oral Arguments in the Supreme Court in Torres v. Lynch: The Latest Crimmigration Case is Too Close to Call

Cross-posted from Immigration Prof Blog.

This morning, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Torres v. Lynch, which was previewed on the ImmigrationProf blog last week.   Here is the transcript to the arguments.

The case involves another effort by the U.S. government to remove a long term lawful permanent resident of the United States based on a single -- and relatively stale -- criminal conviction.  As discussed in my preview to the arguments, the Supreme Court has taken a number of criminal removal cases in recent years, with the immigrant winning a majority of them.  See, e.g., Moncrieffe v. Holder (2013); Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder (2010).

Jorge Luna Torres, a lawful permanent resident from the Dominican Republic, came to the United States in 1983.  The sole blemish on his record is a 1999 conviction under a New York arson statute, for which he was sentenced to one day in jail and five years of probation.  In 2006, Torres was denied re-entry into the United States as inadmissible because of the conviction of an "aggravated felony."  Torres is now gainfully employed and engaged to be married.

The technical -- and dry -- legal question presented by the case is whether a state offense constitutes an "aggravated felony" under Immigration and Nationality Act § 101(a)(43), 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43), on the ground that the state offense is "described in" a specified federal statute but the federal statute includes an interstate element not found in the New York arson statute.  Conviction of an "aggravated felony" has significant immigration consequences; such a conviction renders a noncitizen, including a lawful permanent resident, subject to mandatory removal and detention and makes him or her ineligible for almost any relief from removal.  

As described by Steven Vladeck on SCOTUSblog, the Third Circuit was the first court of appeals to consider the specific question whether conviction under the New York arson statute constituted an aggravated felony; it departed from four circuits that concluded that state law offenses could constitute aggravated felonies even if the federal statute those offenses were "described in" included am imterstate element that the state offense lacked. The Second Circuit agreed with the majority of courts of appeal and disagreed with the Third Circuit.  The court explained that under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-844 (1984), it was required "to defer to an agency's reasonable interpretation of the statute it administers."  For additional analysis of the legal issues and background in the case, click here.

The basic thrust of the arguments cover familiar doctrinal terrain: 

(1) what is the proper interpretation of the U.S. immigration laws?; 

(2) the application of the rule of lenity in cases involving the criminal removal grounds; and

(3) the deference properly afford the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). 

See, e.g., Kawashima v. Holder (2012).  

Torres argues that the plain language of the statute governs and that, if there are any ambiguities, the rule of lenity favoring the narrower interpretation of the removal provision in question.  In contrast, the U.S. government argues that the language of the statute and its context justifies removal and that deference to the BIA is required under Chevron.  For analysis of a number of cases raising similar issues in the Supreme Court in the 2009-13 Terms of the Court, click here

Matthew L. Guadagno, a sole immigration practitioner in New York City, argued on behalf of Petitioner Jorge Torres.

Elaine Goldenberg, Assistant to the Solicitor General, argued for the United States.

I did not attend the oral argument and gleaned whatever insights that I could from the transcript.  Here they are for what they are worth.

All in all, each attorney received heated questions from the Justices, with a specific focus on the technical intricacies of the statutory provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act in question.  Guadagno had some rocky moments but so did Goldenberg. 

Justice Sotomayor seemed troubled that the Petitioner did not adopt the statutory argument of what she said was the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers but seems to have been the argument of the National Immigrant Justice Center and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (page 14) i.e., that the statute should be limited to convictions for "explosive material" offenses.

There was general concern about the implications of the interpretations of the statute offered by both the Petitioner and the U.S. government. 

Torres' interpretation might allow serious arsonists to not be found to have committed an "aggravated felony," a concern expressed by Justice Breyer.  One concern raised by the government was that some child pornography offenses without interstate elements might fall outside the purview of "aggravated felony" if Torres' interpretation was accepted. 

On the other hand, Justice Ginsburg worried that the U.S. government's position might result in mandatory  removal (i.e., no room for administrative discretion) of Torres for a relatively minor arson conviction, with his sentence being one day in jail and five years of probation.  Goldenberg somewhat surprisingly pounced on this expression of sympathy, taking no prisoners:  "That's right that he can't obtain cancellation of removal, and that's consistent with Congress's intent in putting the aggravated felony provision into place, which was to constrain the attorney general's discretion . . . ."  It was mentioned several times during oral argument that the record was not clear about the precise facts surrounding Torres' arson conviction.  

Chevron deference only came up as a mere afterthought in the arguments.  Justice Ginsburg asked what respect was owed the BIA's interpretation.  Guadagno said that it was not owed "any" deference.

I have a hard time predicting how the Court will decide Torres v. Lynch.  It seems like a very close call to me but, if I had to guess, the U.S. government's tough position may win out.  My sense is that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito were convinced by the government's  arguments. 

Depending on the Supreme Court's decision, the case could have an impact on many criminal removal cases, which have been the centerpiece of the Obama administration's immigration enforcement efforts. 



October 23, 2015

Speaking at Case Western Law Review Symposium on Whren v. United States

I traveled to Cleveland this week to participate in the Case Western Law Review's symposium on the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court's major traffic stop decision, Whren v. United States. The decision let stand a criminal conviction based on a traffic stop that appears to have been based on race.  The participants considered whether the Whren decision has resulted in systematic racial bias in the criminal justice system. My paper, "Race-Based Law Enforcement: The Racially Disparate Impacts of Crimmigration Law," considers how the current practice of deporting noncitizens with criminal problem, including simple arrests as well as convictions, results in the overwhelming percentage of the immigrants removed from the United States (96%) are Latino even though they comprise a much smaller part of the immigrant -- legal and undocumented -- population.  Removal disparities are a collateral consequence of the racial profiling in law enforcement permitted by the Supreme Court in Whren.  

It was an energizing conference and I loved the opportunity to participate.

September 25, 2015

"Liberty or Equality?" and the Obergefell Opinion

On Wednesday, September 23, I presented the annual Anthony Kennedy Lecture at the Lewis & Clark Law School.  The subject of my talk was "Liberty or Equality?", and the topic was Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in the recent Obergefell case, recognizing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.  In the first part of my lecture, I placed the Obergefell opinion in context, taking into account Justice Kennedy's place on the current Court, and his past jurisprudence.  In particular, I noted that while Justice Kennedy is undoubtedly the co-called "swing Justice" on the Roberts Court, he is quite different from past swing Justices such as Sandra Day O'Connor and Lewis Powell.  The latter were considered to be moderate pragmatists, lacking strong judicial philosophies.  Not so for Justice Kennedy.  From his first years on the Court, his jurisprudence has been notable for a passionate commitment to Liberty in all of its aspect, and his firm belief that protection for Liberty is intrinsically tied to protection of individual Dignity.  This commitment appears in his  privacy jurisprudence of course (culminating in Obergefell), but also in other areas including notably free speech -- it is no coincidence that Kennedy is the preeminent advocate of First Amendment liberties on the modern Court.  Moreover, unlike his colleagues, Justice Kennedy's commitment to liberty transcends political boundaries, encompassing such "liberal" Liberty claims as abortion and the free speech rights of pornographers, and such "conservative" claims as property rights and commercial speech.  It is this lack of partisanship, rather than lack of philosophy, that has placed Justice Kennedy at the center of the modern Court.

I then stirred up the pot a bit by raising some doubts about Obergefell, at least as written.  I noted that the plaintiffs in the case had raised both Due Process (i.e., Liberty), and Equal Protection (i.e., Equality) claims, and the Court's formulation of the questions presented preserved both.  Yet Kennedy's opinion is almost all Liberty, with a tiny dollop of Equality almost as an afterthought.  I suggested that this emphasis is probably a product of Kennedy's own preferences and comfort levels.  While Justice Kennedy has always been a strong advocate of Liberty claims, his relationship to Equality is more ambivalent.  He unquestionably is firmly committed to nondiscrimination principles, and even (unlike his conservative colleagues) a commitment to racial integration.  However, he has demonstrated -- notably in affirmative action cases -- grave discomfort with policies that classify individuals based on qualities such as race.  Indeed, this discomfort ties into his commitment to Dignity, because he sees such typecasting as itself in consistent with individual Dignity.  As a consequence, Liberty must have seemed the easier path to take.

Ultimately, however, I do believe this choice was a mistake, for several reasons.  First, I think that jurisprudentially, Equality is the stronger argument.  The Court's entire substantive due process jurisprudence, which was the basis of the Due Process holding in Obergefell, rests on somewhat shaky foundations, given its lack of textual grounding.  Equal Protection, on the other hand, is a well-established, textually based doctrine.  And the argument for extending heightened scrutiny to discrimination against LGBT individuals strikes me as extremely powerful, under existing precedent.  Second, an Equality based holding would have been broader, granter more protections to sexual minorities than a narrow decision focused on marriage.  Third, it is possible that an Equality based holding would have generated less intense opposition than a holding that redefines marriage (though this is admittedly speculative).  Finally, I also believe that Justice Jackson was correct in his argument, in the Railway Express case, that in a democracy, equality-based constitutional decisions are generally preferable to liberty-based ones, because they interfere less in legislative authority.

September 25, 2015

Corporations, the Constitution, and the Rights of Others

Cross-posted from Columbia Law School's Blue Sky Blog.

The Supreme Court's protection of corporate political expenditures in Citizens United v. FEC and corporate religious exercise in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has rekindled perennial fears about the influence of corporations in U.S. politics and policy. One popular response has been to argue for stripping corporations of constitutional rights. For example, the proposed "People's Rights Amendment" would exclude corporations from the categories of "people, person, or citizen as used in this Constitution,"[1] thus denying corporations the constitutional rights of human individuals.

Unfortunately, denying corporate constitutional rights is unlikely to have much effect. Insofar as the Supreme Court has protected corporations under the Constitution, that protection does not expressly rely on the notion that a corporation per se has constitutional rights. To the contrary, a central strategy of the Court's corporate constitutional jurisprudence has been to avoid deciding whether corporations are the holders of constitutional rights. Constitutional decisions protecting corporations have not been based on the rights of corporate "persons," but on the less controversial rights of human persons. That is, "corporate" constitutional rights are actually based on the rights of others.

The Court does this in two ways. First, it sometimes treats a corporation as no more, and no less, than an "aggregation" of human individuals whose rights are the real rights implicated in corporate constitutional questions. Hobby Lobby expressly states the Court's reasoning: the corporate "person" is merely "a familiar legal fiction" created to protect the rights of "the people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with the corporation." Thus the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure of corporate papers because such papers implicate the property and privacy rights of individuals. By contrast, a corporate entity cannot invoke the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination, because no individual's rights are compromised when a corporation (in contrast to, say, a CEO) is compelled to incriminate itself.

In the First Amendment free speech context, the Court bases corporate protection on individuals' rights in a second, very different way. The so-called "listeners' rights" theory of the First Amendment protects the public's right to hear messages, and thus requires neither a corporate nor an individual "right" to speak. Thus in Citizens United (and earlier, in First National Bank v. Bellotti (1978)) the Court held that corporate political spending must be protected in order to protect voters' First Amendment rights to receive diverse sources of political information.

The Court, then, has avoided the mistake of equating corporations with human individuals for constitutional purposes. However, its "rights of others" approach suffers from a different error: a fundamental misunderstanding of the corporate decisionmaking process. In the "aggregation" cases, the Court purports to protect the individuals associated with the corporation, but this erroneously assumes that the corporation's acts are in effect the acts of those individuals. The Court makes a similar error with respect to corporate political spending. Even if listeners have an interest in hearing corporate messages, that may conflict with the rights of the corporation's constituent individuals if they disagree with those messages. Citizens United dismissed this concern on the ground that shareholders control a corporation's messages through "corporate democracy."

Small, family-run corporations, such as that involved in Hobby Lobby, may accurately represent the wishes of their constituents.  The same is not true of larger corporations, however.  Corporate law does not, and is not intended to, run corporations in a "democratic" way. Rather, in the interests of money-making efficiency, the law concentrates power in professional managers. They enjoy nearly unreviewable discretion to control the resources of the corporation with negligible input from shareholders.

As intended, this arrangement is likely to benefit shareholders financially. But it does not protect them from corporate political spending or other speech acts they disagree with. Shareholders can sue management only for deliberate malfeasance, and political spending has been treated as a proper matter for management discretion. Furthermore, the Court itself has stated that corporate rights are meant to protect not only shareholders, but also other corporate constituents, such as employees. Those individuals, however, have even less power than shareholders with respect to corporate decisionmaking. Employees cannot vote in corporate elections and can be fired for disagreeing with management.

The protection of corporate constituents may present a compelling state interest justifying the regulation of corporate speech. Corporate political spending in particular could compromise the speech and property interests of corporate constituents who may disagree with the political message. This argument questions the reasoning of Citizens United, and is consistent with the proposed "Democracy for All Amendment," which would expressly permit campaign finance law to regulate corporations and natural persons differently.[2]


[1] See S.J. Res. 18 & H.J. Res. 21, 113th Cong. (1st Sess. 2013). I should disclose that I am a member of the Legal Advisory Committee of Free Speech for People, an advocacy group that supports this amendment, as well as the "Democracy for All Amendment," discussed below. See Free Speech for People,

[2] See S.J. Res. 19 & H.J. Res. 119, 113th Cong. (2nd Sess. 2014).

The post is adapted from the recent article, Corporations and the Rights of Others, 30 Const. Comment. 335 (2015), which is available here.

August 28, 2015

Professor Peter Lee on "The Supreme Assimilation of Patent Law"

Professor Peter Lee, a leading scholar of patent law, has a new article that will be published in the Michigan Law Review next year. The article is titled "The Supreme Assimilation of Patent Law," and it presents a descriptive theory of Supreme Court patent jurisprudence.

Here is the abstract:

Although tensions between universality and exceptionalism apply throughout law, they are particularly pronounced in patent law, a field that deals with highly technical subject matter. This Article explores these tensions by investigating an underappreciated descriptive theory of Supreme Court patent jurisprudence. Significantly extending previous scholarship, it argues that the Court's recent decisions reflect a project of eliminating "patent exceptionalism" and assimilating patent doctrine to general legal principles (or, more precisely, to what the Court frames as general legal principles). Among other motivations, this trend responds to rather exceptional patent doctrine emanating from the Federal Circuit in areas as varied as appellate review of lower courts, remedies, and the award of attorney's fees. The Supreme Court has consistently sought to eliminate patent exceptionalism in these and other areas, bringing patent law in conformity with general legal standards. Among other implications, this development reveals the Supreme Court's holistic outlook as a generalist court concerned with broad legal consistency, concerns which are less pertinent to the quasi-specialized Federal Circuit. Turning to normative considerations, this Article argues in favor of selective, refined exceptionalism for patent law. Although the Supreme Court should strive for broad consistency, certain unique features of patent law-particularly the role and expertise of the Federal Circuit-justify some departure from general legal norms. Finally, this Article turns to tensions between legal universality and exceptionalism more broadly, articulating principles to guide the deviation of specialized areas of law from transcendent principles.  

You can download Peter Lee's paper at SSRN.


August 18, 2015

The “sock removal” case continues: Mellouli v. Lynch and compliance with the Court’s mandate

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court provided Moones Mellouli, a lawful permanent resident who had been ordered removed from the United States, with a victory in his efforts to reverse a removal order.  The Court held that "[f]ederal law ([8 U.S.C.] 1227(a)(2)(B)(i)  . . . did not authorize Mellouli's removal." It did not remand the case to the court of appeals or the Board of Immigration Appeals for further proceedings, thereby suggesting that the case had come to an end.  Nonetheless, there now is a squabble between Mellouli and the U.S. government over just how big Mellouli's victory was.

The Court ruled that Mellouli's removal order based on a single conviction under Kansas law for possession of drug paraphernalia - in this instance, a sock used to conceal a few tablets of a prescription drug - was not authorized by federal immigration law.  The case was returned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which, without notice or briefing, remanded the case to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) for further proceedings consistent with the Court's opinion.  A close reading of the order suggests that the court of appeals thought that, despite the seeming finality of the Supreme Court ruling, there still might be a way to remove Mellouli under the drug provisions of the immigration statute.

After the Court's decision, the parties discussed possible resolution of the case.  The U.S. government ultimately announced that it planned to dismiss the removal proceedings without prejudice, thereby leaving open the possibility of reinstituting the proceedings against Mellouli at some point.  In contrast, Mellouli wants to ensure that the proceedings are dismissed with prejudice.

In the Supreme Court, Mellouli now seeks Justice Alito, who disagreed with the majority's rejection of the removal order in Mellouli v. Lynch, to issue a stay to allow Mellouli to pursue efforts, including possible mandamus, to require the U.S. government to dismiss the removal proceedings with prejudice.

One might guess that Justice Alito, as well as the entire Court, would not want to tinker with the intricacies of the implementation of the Court's decision.  However, Mellouli claims that the court of appeals is violating the Court's ruling by remanding for the BIA to come up with a way for justifying removal under the drug provisions of the removal statute when the Court has already ruled that Mellouli is not removable under its provisions.  Efforts to circumvent the Court's ruling just might get Justice Alito's attention.  Indeed, something in Mellouli's stay motion apparently did get his attention and persuaded Justice Alito to request a response by the Department of Justice by 4 p.m. EST on August 20.

In addition, the matter of the finality of the Court's ruling is no small matter to Moones Mellouli.  Mellouli wants certainty that the minor drug paraphernalia conviction does not possibly lead to further removal proceedings and possible detention if he returns to the United States.  He already experienced threatened removal once, having been forced to leave the United States and his fiancé.  (Mellouli remains living outside the country.).  The nature of Mellouli's concerns, and the great potential harms he faces, offers insights into why removal matters differ from the ordinary civil matters handled by the courts.

All in all, the struggle between the Justice Department and Moones Mellouli might seem like small potatoes.  One might legitimately ask, however - as many did as the United States pressed a minor drug paraphernalia involving a sock all the way to the Supreme Court - why the U.S. government is taking such tough litigation positions to no apparent greater end.

July 1, 2015

What the Supreme Court Should Have Said in the Confederate Flag Texas License Plate Case

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

Display of the Confederate battle flag on government-owned property has certainly gotten a lot of attention of late. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 a few weeks ago, in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., that Texas could, consistent with the First Amendment, reject a specialty license plate design submitted by a non-profit entity due to the design’s prominent use of the Confederate battle flag, even though Texas had approved a disparate array of some 350 other designs submitted by various individuals and organizations depicting messages ranging from “I’d Rather Be Golfing” to the names of a number of (out-of-state) universities to “MIGHTY FINE” to “GET IT SOLD WITH RE/MAX.”

And, in the wake of the Charleston church shootings that occurred a day before Walker was handed down, there have been calls made and steps taken by (Republican as well as Democrat) elected leaders to remove the Confederate battle symbol from statehouses in places like Alabama and South Carolina.

Interestingly, the latter episode sheds light on how the Court should have handled the former—the Walker dispute. In short, the Court should have treated Walker more as a Confederate battle flag case, and less as a license plate case.

Why Justice Breyer’s Majority Opinion In Walker Is Unconvincing

Many able analysts, including some of my fellow Verdict columnists writing in other venues, have exposed some of the major shortcomings of Justice Breyer’s majority opinion, which holds that specialty license plates in Texas are “government speech,” such that the government is largely free to pick and choose—even on the basis of viewpoint—which messages shall be allowed on specialty plates mounted on Texas-registered vehicles. Justice Breyer’s opinion gives a few reasons why the Court believes specialty plates should be treated as government speech. First is that states have historically used license plates as a means of promoting government messages—such as a state’s motto or some iconic image of the state which its leaders want viewers to think of when the state comes to mind. Fair enough, but Justice Breyer is relying here on a prior era, and one in which Texas (and other states) had but a single, or a few, messages it allowed on any of the plates registered in the State. By opening up its license plate regime and approving over 350 disparate messages, Texas has changed the essential purpose (beyond identification of the car’s owner) of the license plate platform from government speech to private speech. And this is not a phenomenon unique to license plates. There might be a lot of public properties that once were used substantially for government speech, but that have been converted into limited or designated or nonpublic fora (where the government is no longer free to discriminate against particular viewpoints) by the government’s decision to open up the property so widely. And it is no response to a claim of improper viewpoint discrimination in any of these kinds of fora to say that the property was originally used for government speech.

The second argument Justice Breyer makes is that license plates are closely associated or identified with the state in the public’s mind. Justice Breyer adds that “a person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intend[s] to convey to the public that the State had endorsed the message. If not, the individual could simply display . . . a bumper sticker.” Again, that might have been true of Texas license plates in an early era, but as Justice Alito’s withering dissent points out, no remotely reasonable viewers would ever actually think, after driving Texas roads for even a short time, that Texas really supports messages like “Go [Michigan State] Spartans,” or “Roll [Alabama] Tide Roll.” Or that the person whose plate bears one of these messages actually chose the plate design over a bumper sticker in order to obtain a state imprimatur (as opposed to preferring a specialty plate over a sticker because of the permanence and cleanliness of a plate, and to avoid any stigma tied to the use of bumper stickers.) I also find it interesting that questions such as these are empirical ones, and yet the Court makes broad findings in this regard without any (easily obtainable) evidence. (This lack of empirical input concerning public perceptions was also a feature of another First Amendment case, Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, about which I wrote a column six weeks ago).

A Better Framing of the Issues Implicated by Walker

In spite of its analytic weaknesses, Justice Breyer’s opinion arrives at a result that many observers, on and off the Court, find intuitively correct. Can the Lone Star State really be forced to have the word “TEXAS” that runs accross the top of every license plate in the State appear just a few inches from the Confederate battle flag symbol? Walker, it is worth noting, was a rare case in which Justice Clarence Thomas joined the four “liberal” Justices to create a very unlikely 5-4 majority. Odd lineups like this usually suggest that something interesting is going on, but what might be the key to unlocking Walker?

For me, the critical fact in the case is one to which the Court gave virtually no attention—that the symbol at issue is not just an offensive one (representing, as it does, slavery, rebellion, and a combination of the two, whether or not it stands for other things as well.) It is a symbol that originated as government speech by, among other Confederate states, the State of Texas, and that is thus linked to those state governments, including Texas, who are responsible for its prominence and its (ugly) messages. The flag was adopted and used in battle by Confederate states from late 1861 until the fall of the Confederacy, and then utilized extensively by racist governors and other officials to resist desegregation during the Civil Rights movement. So even if Texas were required to permit racial slurs on specialty plates (a matter about which I’m not sure – perhaps Texas, because of its history concerning race, has a strong interest in separating itself from any racist message that, if attributed to the state, might raise equal protection problems), the present case is different: the Confederate battle flag is worse in this regard than a racial slur; it is akin to a racial slur that was adopted and previously used as a state’s motto.

Because Texas has a distinctive association with use of the Confederate flag, it has a distinctive (and non-censorial) reason to want to avoid improper attribution on its property, including its license plates. I am not saying that government owns the intellectual property rights to control the use of flag symbols—the famous Texas v. Johnson case invalidating a law prohibiting flag-burning rightly rejected that idea. Rather, because the risk of misattribution is greater with respect to the use on government property of symbols that had formerly been used by the government itself than it is with respect to other messages, the government has a correspondingly stronger reason (other than censorship) to regulate.

For example, if New Hampshire changed its motto from the traditional “Live Free or Die” message that has been appearing on its license plates for decades (and that was the subject of the other famous Supreme Court case involving a license plate, Wooley v. Maynard) because the State no longer embraced that principle, and it had a specialty plate scheme in which an applicant wanted that creed to physically appear near the words “NEW HAMPSHIRE,” the State would have a strong interest in rejecting that design to avoid any confusion.

If the approach I offer here had been the basis of the majority’s decision in Walker, various problems that Justice Breyer’s opinion creates going forward would have been avoided. If Texas specialty plates really are “government speech,” then how can the State approve and allow the design (which it has) bearing the words “Knights of Columbus,” a distinctively Catholic fraternal service organization? If people identify that design with lawmakers in Austin, isn’t there an Establishment Clause problem? And if the license plates are government (rather than private) speech, then Texas can reject a design bearing the words “Pro-Choice” even though it has already approved one bearing the words “Choose Life.” Does that kind of asymmetry make sense?

It may well be that the rationale I suggest today could, if adopted, mean that some states (i.e., those particularly associated with the Confederacy or racism) would have more latitude than others to reject the Confederate flag on specialty plate designs, and that the rejection by some states (that lack the historical association) would look like censorship, pure and simple. But even if that is true, we should remember that other equality-based constitutional doctrines are similarly contextual. For example, a jurisdiction that has engaged in racial discrimination may have more latitude to engage in race-based remedial action than one that hasn’t. The “government speech” rationale adopted by the Court may seem to create a cleaner line than the test I offer here, but in the long run it is (I suspect) less honest and will be more problematic in future disputes.

June 15, 2015

Opinion analysis: Limited judicial review of consular officer visa decisions – foreshadowing the result in the same-sex marriage case?

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

Today, a splintered Supreme Court issued a ruling in Kerry v. Din.  The case raised the question of the continuing vitality of the doctrine of consular non-reviewability and its prohibition of judicial review of visa denials by Department of State consular officers. The doctrine is a close cousin of immigration law's extraordinary "plenary power doctrine," which emerged in the late 1800s to uphold laws restricting immigration from China and, in its modern incarnation, immunizes the U.S. immigration laws from ordinary constitutional review.

Over the years, the courts have recognized exceptions to consular absolutism. The most well-known modern example is Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972). In that case, the Supreme Court reviewed a claim brought by U.S. citizens that the exclusion of a Marxist journalist from the United States violated their First Amendment right to hear him speak. In reviewing the visa decision, the Court found that the applicant's violation of the terms of visas on previous trips to the United States was a "facially legitimate and bona fide reason" - and thus legally sufficient - justification for the U.S. government's actions.

Kaniska Berashk is a citizen of Afghanistan and the spouse of Fauzia Din, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Based on his marriage to a U.S. citizen, he applied for a visa for which he was prima facie eligible under the Immigration and Nationality Act. A consular officer in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, denied the visa application. One could guess that the denial was based on the fact that Berashk had worked as a payroll clerk for the Afghan Ministry of Social Welfare, part of the national government at one time controlled by the Taliban. The officer did not so state, however, instead relying on the immigration statute's broad definition of "terrorist activities," which Congress had greatly expanded in 1996 immigration reform legislation and later in the USA PATRIOT Act. The officer provided no explanation of what Berashk specifically had done to warrant the visa denial. Din sought judicial review of her husband's visa denial and forced separation from her. Applying Kleindienst, the court of appeals found that the consular officer's perfunctory citation to the statute was an insufficient ground for the denial.

Before the Supreme Court, the Obama administration took a firm position and relied heavily on two Cold-War-era decisions that immigration law professors love to hate: Knauff v. Shaughnessy (1950); in which the Court held that the non-citizen wife of a U.S. citizen could be denied admission based on secret evidence, and Shaughnessy v. United States ex rel. Mezei (1953), in which the Court refused, based on secret evidence, to allow a long-term U.S. resident to return to the United States after a trip abroad to visit a dying relative, even when the resident faced the prospect of indefinite detention because his native country would not accept his return. Seeking to limit Kleindienst to its facts, the U.S. government argued that it possessed absolute authority to exclude non-citizens from the country and that there therefore is no right to judicial review of visa denials by consular officers.

The opinions of the Justices reveal that the case appears to have been more a battlefield over the scope of constitutional due process rights to marriage - and thus perhaps to the same-sex marriage case (Obergefell v. Hodges) currently before the Court - than a case involving judicial review of visa decisions.

Justice Antonin Scalia announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas joined. In the view of the plurality, Din did not have a constitutional right at stake that justified judicial review: "What Justice Breyer's dissent strangely describes as a 'deprivation of her freedom to live together with her spouse in America' . . . is, in any world other than the artificial world of ever-expanding constitutional rights, nothing more than a deprivation of her spouse's freedom to immigrate into America."

Recounting the long history of regulation of the immigration of spouses of U.S. citizens to the United States (that includes the stripping of U.S. citizenship from women who married foreigners), Justice Scalia took pains to criticize Justice Stephen Breyer's assertion (in his dissent) that Din had a constitutional right at stake. He concluded that "[t]o the extent that she received any explanation for the Government's decision, this was more than the Due Process Clause required." Consequently, the Ninth Circuit ruling to the contrary was vacated and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, concurred in the judgment. While agreeing with the plurality that the case must be vacated and remanded, Justice Kennedy stated that, "rather than deciding, as the plurality does, whether Din has a protected liberty interest, my view is that, even assuming she does, the notice she received regarding her husband's visa denial satisfied due process." Refusing to join Justice Scalia's recounting of the case law on the scope of the right to marriage, Justice Kennedy would find that the reasoning offered by the consular officer for denying the visa satisfies Kleindienst, suggesting that national security justifies the minimal justification offered for the denial.

In dissent, Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, would conclude that Din "possesses the kind of 'liberty' interest to which the Due Process Clause grants procedural protection. And the Government has failed to provide her the procedure that is constitutionally 'due.'" "[T]the liberty interest that Ms. Din seeks to protect consists of her freedom to live together with her husband in the United States. She seeks procedural, not substantive, protection for this freedom."

Like the Ninth Circuit and unlike Justice Kennedy, Justice Breyer would require a more complete explanation for the visa denial than the one provided to Din and Berashk. To the four dissenters, the consular officer's statement in this case (the citation to the statute's "terrorist activity" provisions) was inadequate because (1) the terrorist activity provision literally lists dozens of activities that can lead to the denial of a visa; and (2) there was no factual basis for the specific denial of a visa to this applicant. The dissent also rejected the idea that national security concerns justify the cryptic denial in this case.

Because there was no majority opinion, today's decision probably will not dramatically change the doctrine of consular non-reviewability. The debate between the Justices in this case was really about the scope of Din's constitutional right, not judicial review of a consular officer's decision. One would not be surprised if the Justices had the same-sex marriage case in the backs of their minds, with four Justices viewing the right more broadly than the plurality and Justices Kennedy and Alito refusing to join the narrow view of the right articulated by Justice Scalia.

However, the Court offers hints about the future of judicial review of immigration decisions. A majority of the Court is willing to allow some kind of review of consular officer visa decisions. Justice Kennedy's concurring opinion would allow for more deferential judicial review than Justice Breyer's dissent. However, both - representing six Justices in total - reviewed the consular officer visa denial in this case. Among the opinions, there was no ready defense of the doctrine of consular non-reviewability and no aggressive invocation of cases contrary to modern constitutional sensibilities such as Knauff and Mezei.

Today's decision could reasonably be read as reaffirming Kleindienst v. Mandel and continuing to allow some modicum of judicial review of consular visa decisions that implicate the rights of U.S. citizens. The Supreme Court's holding is consistent with its decisions for more than a decade vindicating some kind of judicial review in immigration cases.

June 5, 2015

Takeaways From the Facebook Threat and Title VII Head Scarf Cases Handed Down by the Court This Week

Cross-posted from Justia's Verdict.

On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down two cases, Elonis v. United States and EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, that had received a lot of press in earlier stages of the litigations and that, judging from the briefs, posed important civil rights issues concerning freedom of speech and freedom of religion, respectively. Although the Court ended up resolving the two matters on relatively narrow grounds-disappointing some of the Justices as well as analysts-it is important to understand precisely what the Court did (and did not) hold in these two rulings, both of whose outcomes were decided by 8-1 votes. In the space below, I briefly discuss the two decisions individually and then side-by-side.

Elonis v. United States

Based on statements he posted on Facebook directed at, among others, his ex-wife, federal law enforcement officials, and school children, Anthony Elonis was convicted of violating federal criminal statutes that prohibit the interstate transmission of communications containing threats to injure other persons. For example, in referring to FBI officials (who had visited his home to interview him about his activities), Elonis wrote online (seemingly in rap-style cadence):

[T]he next time you know, you best be serving a warrant
And bring yo' SWAT an explosives expert while you're at it
Cause little did y'all know, I was strapped wit' a bomb . . .
I was jus' waitin' for y'all to handcuff me and pat me down.
Touch the detonator in my pocket and we're all goin' BOOM!

In another posting, Elonis offered:

That's it. I've had about enough.
I'm checking out and making a name for myself.
Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous shooting ever imagined. . .
The only question is. . . which one?

In entries about his wife, Elonis wrote: "There's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I'm not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die, bitch . . . " And so forth.

At Elonis's criminal trial, the federal district judge instructed the jury that, for purposes of whether Elonis had issued threats prohibited by the statute, "[a] statement is a true threat [subject to prosecution] when a defendant intentionally makes a statement in a context or under such circumstances wherein a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily injury or take the life of an individual." Elonis argued under both the First Amendment and also under the federal criminal statute he was charged with violating that, before a person can be punished for expressing a threat, the government must allege and prove that the defendant subjectively intended to threaten his victim. In other words, Elonis argued that the government needed to prove that he had some subjective state of mind with respect to the effect that his words would have on the individuals to whom they were directed, and not simply that he voluntarily uttered the words and should have known the effect those words would create.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Third Circuit (along with a large number of other circuits) have rejected the idea that the First Amendment requires the government to prove any subjective state of mind in order to punish threats consistent with the First Amendment. Instead, the Third Circuit held that statements that are reasonably construed as threats by listeners can lawfully be punished. In contrast, the Ninth Circuit (and a number of state high courts) has read the First Amendment as requiring the proof of a subjective intent to threaten as a predicate to a prosecution for threatening speech.

When the Supreme Court granted review, most commentators expected it to weigh in on and resolve this divergence in the lower courts over what the First Amendment requires. But in its ruling three days ago, the Justices decided the case purely on the basis of the federal statute under which Elonis was prosecuted; the Court explicitly deferred any analysis or interpretation of First Amendment requirements. And under the federal statute at issue, the Court said, Elonis is correct that some subjective intent by the person uttering the alleged threat is required; negligence by the person issuing the threat (in the sense that he reasonably should have foreseen that his words would be interpreted as threatening) was not enough. Although Chief Justice Roberts's majority opinion conceded that there is no intent standard written into the text of the federal statute, the Court nonetheless found one based on the way similar statutes had been construed. The Court did not specify precisely what level of intent the federal government must prove-and explicitly left open the question whether recklessness (a conscious disregard of a known risk that words could cause fear) is enough for the government to prove, or instead whether a higher form of intent such as actual knowledge is needed-but reversed Elonis's conviction and sent the case back to the lower courts because negligence on his part was not adequate to support a conviction under the statute.

EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch

Samantha Elauf is a practicing Muslim who regularly wears a headscarf for religious reasons. When she applied for a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) retail store, the A&F managers evaluating her candidacy declined to hire her because the wearing of head scarves violates an appearance (or "Look") policy A&F has; employees in retail positions are prohibited from wearing caps and other headwear. Prior to their decision not to hire Ms. Elauf, the A&F managers had internal discussions about her in which one of the managers who had some acquaintance with Ms. Elauf expressed the belief that Ms. Elauf wore headscarves because of her faith.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued A&F on Ms. Elauf's behalf, alleging that A&F had violated Title VII, which prohibits an employer from deciding not to hire an individual because of the individual's religious observance or practice, unless the accommodating the observance or practice would create an undue hardship for the employer. A&F argued, and the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed, that A&F should not be liable because "ordinarily an employer cannot be liable under Title VII for failing to accommodate a religious practice until the applicant . . . provides the employer with actual knowledge of his need for an accommodation."

The Supreme Court reversed. Justice Scalia, calling this a "really easy" case when he delivered the decision from the bench, authored the majority opinion which said a Title VII plaintiff need not show "actual knowledge [by the employer] of a conflict between an applicant's religious practice and a work rule," because requiring such actual knowledge would involve the Court "add[ing] words to the law to produce what is thought to be a desirable result [. . . , which] is Congress's province." He went on: "We construe Title VII's silence [as to the requirement of actual knowledge] as exactly that: silence."

But Justice Scalia did say that a Title VII plaintiff like Ms. Elauf had to show the employer's adverse action against the applicant was based at least in significant measure on a motive to avoid the religious accommodation. But how can an employer be acting based on a motive to avoid accommodating an applicant's religion practice-"because of" an applicant's religious observances, in the language of Title VII-if the employer doesn't know that the applicant's conduct requiring an accommodation is itself religiously based? Justice Scalia acknowledged, in an important footnote, that it "is arguable that the motive requirement itself is not met unless the employer at least suspects that the practice in question is a religious practice," but that issue need not be decided in the A&F case because it has not been briefed by either side and because A&F "knew or at least suspected that the scarf was worn for religious purposes." Oddly enough, then, the majority opinion technically holds open the possibility that an employer who had no clue that a prospective employee's likely non-compliance with a work rule was religiously motivated could be held liable under Title VII, a result that Justice Alito in his separate concurrence rightly calls "very strange" and "surely wrong."

The Two Cases Taken Together

What can we say about these cases when we look at them in tandem? First, it is interesting that Justice Clarence Thomas is the lone dissenter in both decisions, and that he parted company with Justices Scalia and Alito (with whom he is often aligned as to result) on the interpretation of the federal threats statute and Title VII. Also, Justice Alito wrote separately for himself in both cases, decrying the minimalist nature of the majority's holdings. So, in both Elonis and Abercrombie & Fitch, Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito each had a different take from one another.

Second, both majority opinions conclude that Congress had not fleshed out in the text of the statute in question a requirement as to the defendant's subjective knowledge, but the Court reacted to that absence differently in the two cases. In Elonis, the Court said that because the statute is a criminal one, a wrongful state of mind on the part of the defendant should be found in the statute even when Congress was silent. But in Abercrombie & Fitch, Justice Scalia's majority opinion insists (to the extent that one can separate motive from knowledge) that Congress's silence as to the level of knowledge required of employers before they can be held liable is not something to be fixed by courts. The more ambitious attitude by the Court in the context of a criminal statute makes sense; there are special rules of statutory construction that apply particularly to laws that impose criminal sanctions.

But, and this is a third point, the criminal nature of the statute in Elonis might have properly led the Court to want to provide more notice to lower courts and potential defendants about precisely what level of subjective knowledge concerning the fear-inducing nature of words is required; the criminal law setting usually calls for clearer notice to be given to potential offenders. In particular, the disinclination by the Elonis majority to weigh in on whether recklessness by a defendant-e.g., a defendant who fleetingly wonders whether his proposed speech might cause fear in others but who never forms a view on the likelihood fear will in fact ensue-is sufficient under the statute, while perhaps understandable given absence of explicit lower court consideration of this matter, is sub-optimal. And, of course, because many statutes that criminalize threats are state statutes instead of federal laws, the question of whether and how the First Amendment requires government to prove any particular mental state of a defendant before criminal punishment may be imposed remains one on which the Supreme Court will need to give guidance. Indeed, in an earlier column I wrote previewing Elonis, I noted that it may not have been a good case in which to grant review precisely because the statutory ground could complicate the ability of the Court to give needed constitutional guidance. If this happened (as it did), I observed, the Court "would still need to rule in a later case on whether the First Amendment requires subjective intent (in the context of a federal or state statute that clearly does not require it.)"

The absence of guidance to lower courts and litigants in Abercrombie & Fitch is also quite frustrating, even though criminal liability was not at issue. On the facts of the Abercrombie & Fitch case, the employer "knew-or at least suspected-that the scarf was worn for religious purposes." But the tougher situation arises when the employer doesn't actually know but perhaps should be encouraged to find out, prior to declining to hire someone. For example, what if the A&F managers had no personal knowledge of Ms. Elauf during the interview process, but noted that she wore a head scarf and said to themselves, "Gee, I wonder if that is a style statement or a religious practice?" (In some respects, that could be thought of as "recklessness" but not knowledge on the part of the employer.)

Would the fact that the possibility of religious motivation even occurred to the employer be enough to trigger a requirement that the employer investigate the basis of the practice? Or would imposing such a duty on employers cause them to invade the religious privacy of employees and job applicants? (Courts in other countries that take religious liberty seriously often focus on religious privacy more than do American courts.) I do not know the answer to this, but I would observe that minority religious practices are often less well-known to many employers, a fact which might argue in favor of requiring employers to do some diligence once the possibility of a religiously inspired practice occurs to an employer. As for respecting privacy, there may be sensible ways to avoid making applicants feel uncomfortable. For example, all prospective employees could be given a list of all the employer's work rules and then asked, as a matter of course, whether religious practices would require accommodations with respect to any such rules. But this precisely the kind of detail the majority in Abercrombie & Fitch did not want to wade into. The reason it was a "really easy" case for the Court is that the Justices shied away from the difficult matters that actually needed some clarification.

June 1, 2015

Opinion analysis: Court rejects removal based on misdemeanor drug paraphernalia conviction

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

Today, the Supreme Court decided Mellouli v. Lynch, a case involving the removal from the United States of Moones Mellouli, a lawful permanent resident from Tunisia, based on a Kansas misdemeanor drug paraphernalia conviction for possession of a sock used to hide four tablets of the prescription drug Adderall.

Removal based on a sock conviction may sound like a story line from a television sitcom. However, the U.S. government instituted removal proceedings based on the conviction and dramatically changed Mellouli's life. Forced to leave the country where he had resided since 2004 after an immigration court ruled against him, Mellouli now lives apart from his U.S. citizen fiancé.

For purposes of removal, the immigration statute requires that a drug conviction under state law must "relat[e] to a controlled substance (as defined) by" federal law. This requirement is important because some states ban substances in addition to those regulated by federal law. (Kansas, for example, regulates at least nine substances not regulated by federal law.) The charging document and plea agreement in Mellouli's criminal case failed to identify the specific controlled substance related to the paraphernalia that served as the basis for his conviction and thus did not make it clear that the substance was controlled by federal law. Nonetheless, the immigration court and Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), with the approval of the court of appeals, ordered Mellouli deported from the United States.

The arguments in the case, as often is true in modern cases in which the courts review the actions of administrative agencies, revolved around the application of the Court's 1984 decision in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., holding that the courts must defer to an agency's reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute. Cases involving Chevron deference necessarily require careful analysis of the statute in question to determine whether the text is ambiguous, which triggers deference to reasonable agency interpretations of the statute.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for a majority of the Court, which included all but Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.  The opinion carefully marches through the statutory language and agency interpretations and concludes "that Mellouli's Kansas conviction did not trigger removal under" the immigration statute.   The Court, as it had in Moncrieffe v. Holder, reiterated its adherence to the "categorical approach" to removal under criminal statutes, which requires that all of the convictions under a statute must trigger removal without a need for inquiry into the facts of the individual case. The Court further observed that "Congress and the BIA have long required a direct link between an alien's crime of conviction and a particular federally controlled drug." Recognizing that Kansas law regulated nine substances not included in the federal controlled substances lists, the Court found that the government's emphasis on the "relating to" language in the immigration statute to justify removal for a conviction in connection with a substance that was not clearly regulated by federal law was a "sweeping interpretation [that] departs so sharply from the statute's text and history that it cannot be considered a permissible reading" In rejecting the government's position, the majority stated that "[t]he incongruous upshot [of the government's argument] is that an alien is not removable for possessing a substance controlled only under Kansas law, but he is removable for using a sock to contain that substance. Because it makes scant sense, the BIA's interpretation, we hold, is owed no deference under the doctrine described in Chevron."

Justice Thomas, in a dissent joined by Justice Alito, would have accepted the U.S. government's argument. The broad "relating to" language in the removal statute resolved the case for him, as he would have accepted that "faithfully applying [the] text means that an alien may be deported for committing an offense that does not involve a federally controlled substance."

Today's decision is a typical statutory interpretation and agency deference case, which would not seem to have many far-reaching doctrinal implications. It is consistent with the Roberts Court's reluctance to subject small-time drug offenders to mandatory removal from the United States. In Moncrieffe, for example, the Court rejected a removal order of a long-term lawful permanent resident based on a single conviction for possession of the equivalent of a few marijuana cigarettes. Similarly, in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder (2010), the Court ruled that mandatory removal of a lawful permanent resident could not be premised on a misdemeanor conviction for possession of a single tablet of a prescription drug (Xanax) and a previous misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction.

Today's decision will serve as an incentive to prosecutors to clearly state in charging documents and plea agreements what specific drug a drug paraphernalia charge relates to. In this case, such precision would have helped facilitate removal. It seems unlikely that the decision will have much of a general impact on the U.S. government's efforts to remove convicted drug offenders from the country.

In sum, the decision once again demonstrates that the Roberts Court will not rubber-stamp the removal decisions of the executive branch, even those involving immigrants convicted of drug-related crimes that the immigration laws target for harsh treatment.