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August 17, 2017

Sorry, Donald Trump Jr. is Not a Traitor

By Professor Carlton F.W. Larson

[Cross-posted from the Washington Post]

We now know that Donald Trump Jr., a high-level adviser to his father's presidential campaign, attempted to obtain opposition research from the Kremlin. To Trump's opponents, this finally proves explicit collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russian government. Still, it was astonishing to see the defeated candidate for the vice presidency of the United States, Tim Kaine, argue that the son of the incumbent president may have committed treason. He was not the only one to make the allegation, which proliferated on social media; journalists bombarded White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders with questions about "treason."

Assume everything that is being alleged against Donald Trump Jr. is true: that is, he knowingly met with a representative of the Russian government for the purpose of obtaining information, probably illegally obtained, that was harmful to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Is this treason against the United States?

As a technical legal matter, no, and not even close. Article 3 of the United States Constitution limits the crime of treason to two specific offenses: levying war against the United States, and adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. It was deliberately crafted to exclude a wide variety of political offenses, such as criticizing the government.

None of the Trump Jr. allegations suggest conduct analogous to levying war against the United States, which generally requires some use of force in an attempt to overthrow the government. Nor does it amount to adhering to the enemy; for purposes of the Treason Clause, an enemy is a foreign nation or group with which the United States is in a state of war, either declared or actual. We are not in a state of war with Russia. In the 1950s, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage, not treason, because the Soviet Union, although an implacable adversary, was not technically an enemy. We were formally at peace with the Soviet Union then, and we are formally at peace with Russia now.

So for purposes of American treason law, the details of Donald Trump Jr.'s relationship with Russia are irrelevant. He could be a paid foreign agent of Russia; he could take an oath of allegiance to Russia; he could even bug his father's White House bedroom on behalf of Russian intelligence. None of those actions would amount to treason in the narrow sense that our Constitution defines it.

Nonetheless, Trump Jr.'s alleged conduct raises serious questions under other provisions of federal law, all of which will be closely evaluated by Robert Mueller's investigative team. A determination that Trump Jr. did not commit treason is a far cry from finding his actions to be legal. It is against the law, for instance, for U.S. political campaigns to accept anything of value from foreigners.

In a broader sense, though, I understand Kaine's invocation of treason. Coordinating with a foreign government to interfere in American elections is fundamentally wrong, deeply un-American, and, as noted, almost certainly illegal under a variety of federal statutes. In many other countries, this conduct would be obviously treason, no questions asked. Although I am not familiar with the details of Russian law, I have no doubt as to how Vladimir Putin would treat a Russian citizen who coordinated with the CIA to interfere with a Russian election.

American law, however, is different. We have chosen to define treason narrowly, and the body of law dealing with treason is arcane and not always easy to understand. As the U.S. Supreme Court put it in 1945, the Treason Clause's "superficial appearance of clarity and simplicity . . . proves illusory when it is put to practical application. There are few subjects on which the temptation to utter abstract interpretive generalizations is greater or on which they are more to be distrusted. The little clause is packed with controversy and difficulty."

The upshot is a significant gap in our legal vocabulary. We do not have a good term to describe behavior that is not technically treasonous but nonetheless constitutes a betrayal of the United States. I do not have a good solution to fill this gap, but our political and legal discourse would be improved if we had one. In the meantime, even well-trained lawyers such as Kaine will instinctively reach for the label of treason in circumstances similar to those of Donald Trump Jr.

 

July 21, 2017

“What Trump Can Teach Us about Con Law”: Podcast by Professor Elizabeth Joh

Professor Elizabeth Joh is co-hosting a podcast, “What Trump Can Teach Us about Con Law,” that quickly shot to the top of the iTunes charts. Produced by Professor Joh with Roman Mars, host and creator of the independently produced podcast “99% Invisible,” the podcast aims to “take the extreme actions of the President of the United States and channel that chaos into learning our Constitution like we never have before.”

In the introductory episode, Mars said that the show was inspired by one of Professor Joh’s Twitter messages: “Teaching Constitutional Law in 2017 means glancing at twitter every five minutes before class.” 

Joh explains that Constitutional Law is an important course, but one that can be somewhat dry. As of late, the subject has taken on a sense of urgency, as the President’s actions have raised new and challenging constitutional law issues.

Mars proposed creating a podcast based on Joh’s observations, and the result has been “What Trump Can Teach Us about Con Law,” which launched June 7 and quickly rose to the top of the iTunes “Top Podcasts” list. (The podcast was No. 2 on the iTunes charts the following week.)

“I like this idea that maybe we have a president who is kind of stress-testing the Constitution, really giving us a sense of ‘What are the limits of each of the different provisions that he seems to be challenging?’” said Joh.  “That’s really important because it’s forcing us to think about things and wonder, ‘Do we have answers to some of these questions?’”

July 5, 2017

Senior Associate Dean and Professor Madhavi Sunder Appointed to Daniel J. Dykstra Endowed Chair

Madhavi Sunder, an influential scholar of law and culture and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, has been appointed as the Daniel J. Dykstra Endowed Chair at UC Davis School of Law.

Sunder joined UC Davis School of Law in 1999 and was elevated to Senior Associate Dean in 2015. She was named a Carnegie Scholar in 2006 and has been a Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School, the University of Chicago Law School, and Cornell Law School. Her work traverses numerous fields, from intellectual property to human rights law and the First Amendment. She has published in leading law journals including the Yale Law Journal, California Law Review, and Texas Law Review, among others. Her article "IP3," published in the Stanford Law Review in 2006, ranks among the top 25 most-cited Intellectual Property articles of the last decade and as the No. 1 most-cited International IP article of the past five years. Her book, "From Goods to a Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice," was published by Yale University Press in 2012.

"Dean Sunder is a world-class scholar whose work addresses some of the most important issues in contemporary society: technology, intellectual property, and social justice," said Dean Kevin R. Johnson. "UC Davis School of Law is proud to recognize her accomplishments with the Daniel J. Dykstra Endowed Chair."

Dean Sunder succeeds Professor and Dean Emeritus Rex Perschbacher, who was the inaugural holder of the Dykstra Chair. The chair is awarded to a faculty member who demonstrates "outstanding scholarship and teaching and is committed to the ideals of founding School of Law faculty member Dan Dykstra." Dykstra, one of the first faculty members hired at UC Davis School of Law in 1965, rose to become Dean from 1971 to 1974 and remained at King Hall until his retirement. Alumni, friends, and family of the late Dan Dykstra provided funding for the the Daniel J. Dykstra Endowed Chair to honor his memory.

Madhavi Sunder

June 28, 2017

Media Advisory: UC Davis School of Law to present U.S. Supreme Court Year in Review (2016 term)

I am so pleased that the School of Law is presenting a panel discussion next week on the 2016 Supreme Court term. Special thanks to Marc Levinson '73 and the Sacramento office of law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP for hosting us.

Here is the media advisory that just went to the press this week. Note the line that reads, "UC Davis School of Law hopes to make this the first of an annual series of 'U.S. Supreme Court Year in Review' events"!

***

Distinguished Panel of UC Davis Experts to Lead Discussion on U.S. Supreme Court
Topics to include major decisions and the addition of Justice Gorsuch to the Court during the 2016 term.

What: "U.S. Supreme Court Year in Review" event, where leading experts on the U.S. Supreme Court will hold a lunchtime panel discussion on the 2016 term

Why: To inform the local legal community about the latest news from the high court, including detailed analysis of its most important decisions of the term on topics including immigration, criminal law, education, and more. Panelists will also discuss the impact of the new jurist on the bench, Justice Neil Gorsuch. UC Davis School of Law hopes to make this the first of an annual series of "U.S. Supreme Court Year in Review" events.

When: Friday, July 7, from 12:00 to 1:30 P.M.

Where: The law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, 400 Capitol Mall, Suite 3000, Sacramento

Who: A panel of UC Davis law faculty and an attorney from Orrick's San Francisco office.

  • Kevin R. Johnson, Dean at UC Davis School of Law
  • Carlton F.W. Larson, Professor at UC Davis School of Law
  • Aaron Tang, Professor at UC Davis School of Law and former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
  • Easha Anand, Associate at Orrick (San Francisco) and former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
  • Madhavi Sunder, Senior Associate Dean at UC Davis School of Law

One-on-one interviews with the panelists will be available after the event.

The audience includes members of Sacramento's legal community, who pre-registered to attend.

For more information, contact Karen L. Charney at klcharney@ucdavis.edu.

####

June 27, 2017

Supreme Court Ends 2016 Term, Agrees to Hear Travel Ban Cases, Vacates and Remands Cross-Border Shooting Case, Punts in Two Immigration Cases

[Cross-posted from Immigration Prof.]

The Supreme Court's 2016 Term has come to an end.  Today, the last day of the Term, the Court in the biggest news agreed to review the travel ban decisions in the 2017 Term. In a per curiam order, the Court stayed the injunction in part.  Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, concurred in part and dissented in part.   He would have stayed the injunctions in full.   

In Hernandez v. Mesa, which involved a cross border shooting by U.S. immigration enforcement officer of a young Mexican national, the Court in a per curiam pinionr vacated and remanded the case to the court of appeals to consider whether the family could sue for violation of the Fourth Amendment under the Supreme Court's 1971 Bivens decision.  The order, which is analyzed here, observed that the case involved "a heartbreaking loss of life."  Justice Gorsuch did not participate in the case.

The Court ordered reargument in two immigration cases.  

In Jennings v. Rodriguez  (reviewing the legality of detention of immigrants without a bond hearing) and Sessions v. Dimaya (reviewing a Ninth Circuit decision, written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, striking down a criminal removal provision as unconstitutionally vague), the Court will hear rearguments next fall.   The Court likely was split 4-4 in these cases  Justice Gorsuch will break the tie.

The Court earlier this Term decided four decisions touching on immigration:

1.  Sessions v. Morales-Santana (invalidating gender distinctions favoring women over men based on antiquated on stereotypes in derivative citizenship laws).

2.  Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions  (interpreting criminal removal provision).

3.  Maslenjak v.. United States  (denaturalization).

4.  Lee v. United States  (ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on erroneous advice on immigration consequences of guilty plea).

The Court agreed to review is seven immigration-related cases  in total in  the 2016 Term, which is a relatively large number. Two  (Maslenjak and Santana-Morales) touched on citizenship and denaturalization.  Five (Jennings, Dimaya, Esquivel-Quintana, Lee v. U.S.. Hernandez v. Mesa) involved immigration enforcement, which should not be surprising in light of the Obama administration's immigration enforcement push.  Increased immigration enforcement under President Trump will likely lead to a steady stream of immigration cases to the Supreme Court.

June 27, 2017

No decision in two immigration-enforcement cases

[Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.]

President Donald Trump has made immigration enforcement a top priority. Two immigration-enforcement cases looked likely to have a big impact on the Trump administration’s plans. Both were argued before the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch. Today, the Supreme Court, apparently deadlocked, ordered reargument of the cases.

One of the cases, Jennings v. Rodriguez, involved immigration detention. Detained immigrants ordinarily have been eligible to post bond and be allowed release from custody. In a January 25, 2017, executive order, among numerous immigration-enforcement initiatives, Trump announced an end to the “catch and release” of immigrants facing removal from the United States. Detention without bond thus became official immigration-enforcement policy.

Generally speaking, criminal and civil detention of U.S. citizens is subject to basic constitutional safeguards. Such a rights-based system, however, fits uncomfortably into the much more limited constitutional protections historically offered to noncitizens. Reflecting this tension, the Supreme Court’s immigration-detention decisions are not altogether consistent.

In a class-action challenge to immigrant detention, Jennings v. Rodriguez raised the question whether immigrants, like virtually any U.S. citizen placed in criminal or civil detention, must be guaranteed a bond hearing. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed a district court injunction requiring bond hearings every six months for immigrant detainees.

Indefinite detention without a hearing and possible release is difficult to justify as a matter of constitutional law. At the same time, however, some justices at oral argument expressed concern that the 9th Circuit had acted more like a legislature than a court in mandating a bond hearing every six months. In the end, the court apparently needed a tiebreaking vote and will address immigration detention next term.

Another case that the court did not decide involved criminal removal. In the last few years, the Supreme Court has decided a steady number of criminal-removal cases. In light of the Trump administration’s stated emphasis on the removal of “criminal aliens,” we will likely see more criminal removal cases in the future. Most of the removal cases that have recently come before the court, including Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions decided earlier this term, have raised ordinary issues of statutory interpretation and administrative deference.

Sessions v. Dimaya instead was a constitutional challenge to a criminal-removal provision in the immigration laws, which historically have been largely immune from judicial review. The court appears to be moving toward applying ordinary constitutional norms to the immigration laws. Earlier this term, for example, the court in Sessions v. Santana-Morales held that gender distinctions favoring women over men in the derivative-citizenship provisions of the immigration laws violated the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.

A noncitizen, including a lawful permanent resident, who is convicted of an “aggravated felony” is subject to mandatory removal. The Immigration and Nationality Act defines “aggravated felonies” expansively. That definition incorporates 18 U.S.C. §16(b), known as the “residual clause,” which defines a “crime of violence” to encompass “any … offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”

James Garcia Dimaya, who immigrated lawfully from the Philippines in 1992, has two residential burglary convictions; neither involved violence. Based on the convictions, the immigration court and the Board of Immigration Appeals ordered Dimaya removed from the United States. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found that Section 16(b) was unconstitutionally vague and vacated the order. To reach that conclusion, the 9th Circuit relied on the Supreme Court’s 2015 opinion in Johnson v. United States, in which court found the Armed Career Criminal Act’s similarly worded definition of “violent felony” was so vague as to violate due process.

The application of the void-for-vagueness doctrine to the immigration laws apparently divided the court. At oral argument, the justices seemed to agree that the court should review immigration-removal provisions under the standard due process test for vagueness. However, they appeared to be divided as to whether the case at hand was distinguishable from Johnson and thus whether Section 16(b) is unconstitutionally vague.

For the last decade, immigration cases have been a bread-and-butter part of the Supreme Court’s docket. The Supreme Court has slowly but surely moved immigration law toward the constitutional mainstream. We will have to wait until the next term to see if the court continues that trend with respect to immigrant detention and criminal removal.

June 23, 2017

Ninth Circuit: Employer's Counsel May be Subject to FLSA Liability for Calling ICE on Plaintiff

[Cross-posted from Immigration Prof.]

Here is an update on an imporstant Ninth Circuit decision from Ninth Circuit watcher Cappy White:

Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit in Arias v. Raimundo, No 15-16120, in a case interpreting the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), held that an employer’s attorney could be liable under FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision when that attorney allegedly retaliated against an undocumented employee by arranging to have the employee apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at a scheduled deposition.  Judge Stephen Trott wrote the opinion for the court; Judges Kim McLane Wardlaw and Ronald Gould were also on the panel. 
The employee alleged in his complaint that he settled his case “due in substantial part to the threat of deportation created by Defendant’s communications with ICE,” and that the attorney had contacted ICE regarding other employees who have asserted their rights against employers he represented on at least five other occasions.
 
Relying in large part on Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), a Title VII case, the court distinguished the substantive provisions of employment laws with their anti-retaliation provisions, noting that the “economic control” test for determining whether a defendant is an “employer” is not relevant in determining who can be liable for retaliation.
 
Plaintiff is represented by attorneys from the Legal Aid at Work (formerly the Legal Aid Society -Employment Law Center) in San Francisco and California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.
 
June 12, 2017

Ninth Circuit Joins the Fourth Circuit in Rejecting Trump's Revised Travel Ban

[Cross-posted from Immigration Prof.]

By Kevin R. Johnson

It is a big immigration news day!

Agreeing with the Fourth Circuit, the Ninth Circuit today in a per curiam opinion (Michael Daly Hawkins, Ronald M. Gould, and Richard A. Paez) joined the Fourth Circuit and delivered the Trump administration's revised travel ban another setback.  Here is the introduction (and conclusion):

We are asked to delineate the statutory and constitutional limits to the President’s power to control immigration in t his appeal o f the district court’s order preliminarily enjoining two sections of Executive Order 13780 (“EO2” or “the Order”) , “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States. ” The Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) gives the President broad powers to control the entry of aliens , and to take actions to protect the American public. But immigration, even for the President, is not a one - person show. The President’s authority is subject to certain statutory and constitutional restraints. We conclude that the President, in issuing the Executive Order, exceeded the scope of the authority delegated to him by Congress. In suspending the entry of more than 180 million nationals from six countries, suspending the entry of all refugees, and reducing the cap on the admission of refugees from 110,000 to 50,000 for the 2017 fiscal year, the President did not meet the essential precondition to exercising his delegated authority: The President must make a sufficient finding that the entry of these classes of people would be “detrimental to the interests of the United States. ” Further, the Order runs afoul of other provisions of the INA that prohibit nationality-based discrimination and require the President to follow a specific process when setting the annual cap on the admission of refugees. On these statutory bases, we affirm in large part the district court’s order preliminarily enjoining Sections 2 and 6 of the Executive Order.

The court rested its conclusion on statutory grounds -- that the requirements of Immigration and Nationality Act § 212(f), 8 U.S.C. § 1182(f) had not been satisfied -- and did not reach the Establishment Clause holding of the district court.  At the outset, it found that standing was established and that the case was "ripe" for review. 

The court emphatically rejected the notion that the travel ban was not subject to judicial review:  "Whatever deference we accord to the President's immigration and national security judgments does not preclude us from reviewing the policy at all. [citations omitted] . . . . We do not abdicated the judicial role, and we affirm our obligation `to say what the law is' in this case.  Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137, 177 (1803)." (Slip opinion, p. 32).  The court stated that "[i]n conclusion, the Order does not offer a sufficient justification to suspend the entry of more than 180 million people on the basis of nationality."  Slip op., p. 43.

The court summarizes its order in this concluding paragraph:

We affirm in part and vacate in part the district court’s preliminary injunction order. As to the remaining Defendants, we affirm the injunction as to Section 2(c), suspending entry of nationals from the six designated countries for 90 days; Section 6(a), suspending [the U.S. Refugee Program] for 120 days; and Section 6(b), capping the entry of refugees to 50,000 in the fiscal year 2017. We vacate the portions of the injunction that prevent the Government from conducting internal reviews, as otherwise directed in Sections 2 and 6, and the injunction to the extent that it runs against the President. We remand the case to the district court with instructions to re-issue a preliminary injunction consistent with this opinion. (footnote omitted).

June 12, 2017

Breaking News: Supreme Court Holds that the Constitution Applies to Gender Distinctions in Derivative Citizenship Laws

[Cross-posted from Immigration Prof.]

By Kevin R. Johnson

This morning, the Supreme Court decided Sessions v. Morales-Santana and held that the Constitution applies to gender distinctions in the derivative citizenship laws.  Justice Ginsburg, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, wrote the opinion for the Court.  Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, concurred in the judgment in part.  Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision in the case.

The issues in the case were:  1) Whether Congress’s decision to impose a different physical-presence requirement on unwed citizen mothers of foreign-born children than on other citizen parents of foreign-born children through 8 U.S.C. 1401 and 1409 (1958) violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection; and (2) whether the court of appeals erred in conferring U.S. citizenship on respondent, in the absence of any express statutory authority to do so.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the laws governing citizenship for the children of unmarried parents violated the father’s constitutional right to be treated the same as a U.S.-citizen mother. (The statute was amended in 1986 to reduce the number of years that a father must have lived in the United States, but it continues to apply different standards for men and women.) The court of appeals declared Morales-Santana a U.S. citizen.

In previous cases raising similar issues, a majority of the justices had not been in agreement. 

Justice Ginsburg noted that the statutory provisions in question "date from an era when the lawbooks of our Nation were rife with overbroad generalizations about the way men and women are."  (citations omitted).   Gender distinctions now are subject to heightened scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause.  "Prescribing one rule for mothers, another for fathers, § 1409 is of the same genre as the classifications we [have] declared unconstitutional . . . ." In the majority's view, the gender distinctions are "stunningly anachronistic" and violate the Equal Protection guarantee.

The majority, however, declined to rewrite the statute.  That is within the purview of Congress.  In the interim, the Court agreed with the U.S., government and ruled that a five-year requirement under another subsection of the statute should apply prospectively to children born to unwed U.S.-citizen mothers.

Justice Thomas, concurring in part in the judgment, would not decide the constitutional issues but would simply find that the Court could not provide the relief sought by Morales-Santana.

Immigration law has been exceptional in its immunity from judicial review.  Sessions v. Morales-Santana is another step down the road toward applying ordinary constitutional norms to the immigration and nationality laws. Six justices agreed that the Equal Protection Clause applied to gender distinctions in the derivative citizenship laws.  We shall see whether the decision marks the beginning of a trend in this Term's immigration decisions -- several that raise constitutional questions.

May 31, 2017

Opinion analysis: Justices continue to apply ordinary modes of statutory interpretation to the U.S. immigration laws

(Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.)

By Kevin R. Johnson

With the new Trump administration, immigration has been in the national news. President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have emphasized that the U.S. government will target "criminal aliens" in its removals. At various times, Trump has focused on crimes committed by Mexican immigrants. In the first of a number of immigration decisions from the 2016 term, the Supreme Court today decided its first crime-based removal decision in the new administration, Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions. The case involved an immigrant from Mexico convicted of what could be viewed as a "sex crime." The decision in favor of the lawful permanent resident - written by Justice Clarence Thomas for a unanimous court (minus Justice Neil Gorsuch, who did not participate) - might be surprising to some observers.

The facts of the case are relatively simple. When Juan Esquivel-Quintana, a lawful permanent resident from Mexico, was 20 years old, he was convicted under California law for having consensual sex with his then-16-year-old girlfriend. An "aggravated felony" conviction generally requires mandatory removal of an immigrant from the United States and renders the immigrant ineligible for most forms of relief from removal. Section 1101(a)(43) of the Immigration and Nationality Act defines an "aggravated felony" to include the "sexual abuse of a minor." Claiming that Esquivel-Quintana's conviction constituted an "aggravated felony," the U.S. government initiated removal proceedings against him, and the immigration court ordered him removed from the United States. The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed his appeal from the removal order. Applying the Supreme Court's seminal 1984 decision in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit deferred to the BIA's interpretation of "sexual abuse of a minor" and upheld the removal order. The dissent would have applied the rule of lenity, a judicial doctrine under which ambiguities in criminal law are resolved in favor of the defendant, to the interpretation of the criminal-removal provision in the immigration law and would have found that Esquivel-Quintana's conviction was not an aggravated felony.

As described by Thomas, the question before the court was "whether a conviction under a state statute criminalizing consensual sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and a 17-year-old qualifies as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA." The court's answer was brief and straightforward: "We hold that it does not."

The court first reiterated the standard test for determining whether an immigrant's "conviction qualifies as an aggravated felony," as set forth in several recent cases:"[W]e 'employ a categorical approach by looking to the statute ... of conviction, rather than to the specific facts underlying the crime.'" Under the categorical approach, "we ask whether the state statute defining the crime of conviction categorically fits within the 'generic' federal definition of a corresponding aggravated felony." In other words, "we presume that the state conviction "rested upon ... the least of th[e] acts" criminalized by the statute, and then we determine whether that conduct would fall within the federal definition of the crime." Under that approach, Esquivel-Quintana's state conviction is "an 'aggravated felony' under the INA only if the least of the acts criminalized by the state statute falls within the generic federal definition of sexual abuse of a minor."

That was not the case here, the court concluded. After examining Section 1101(a)(43)(A) of the INA, Thomas observed that the statute's requirement that the sexual abuse be "of a minor" means that "the statute of conviction must prohibit certain sexual acts based at least in part on the age of the victim." The court pointed to statutory rape laws as a prime example of "this category of crimes," and relied on "reliable dictionaries" to define the "'generic'" age of consent in those laws as 16. The court rejected the "everyday understanding of 'sexual abuse of a minor'" offered by the government, which would have included activity involving victims up to the age of 18, pointing out that "the Government's definition turns the categorical approach on its head" by conditioning the crime on the particular laws of each state."

Moving to a consideration of the INA provisions surrounding Section 1101(a)(43)(A), the court emphasized that the statute's definition of "aggravated felony" includes murder and rape, and that the "structure of the INA therefore suggests that the sexual abuse of a minor encompasses only especially egregious felonies." According to the court, related federal statutes as well as state criminal codes also support the conclusion that "for a statutory rape offense to qualify as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA based solely on the age of the participants, the victim must be younger than 16." "Because the California statute at issue in this case does not categorically fall within that definition, a conviction pursuant to it is not an aggravated felony under §1101(a)(43)(A)."

By resolving the case on statutory grounds, the court avoided the more far-reaching questions raised by the majority and dissent in the court below. Thomas stated: "We have no need to resolve whether the rule of lenity or Chevron receives priority in this case because the statute, read in context, unambiguously forecloses the Board's interpretation. Therefore, neither the rule of lenity nor Chevron applies." A decision on either of those grounds would have had more far-reaching implications for immigration law than strict reliance on the interpretation of the statutory phrase "sexual abuse of a minor."

Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions fits in neatly with the court's recent immigration decisions, such as Mellouli v. Lynch in 2015 and Moncrieffe v. Holder in 2013, which also applied ordinary modes of statutory interpretation to the immigration laws. In a series of crime-based removal decisions, the court has engaged in close parsing of the language of the statutory provisions in question. This approach is no different than that employed by the court in other cases. Although not breaking new ground today, the court continues to move forward in applying ordinary analytical approaches to immigration law, which historically had been in certain respects "exceptional" in the amount of deference given to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Immigrants have prevailed more often than not in the court's recent decisions as the U.S. government has pressed cases, like Esquivel-Quintana, which the court found to be unsupported by the immigration statute.