WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court grappled Tuesday with how an aggravated felony or crime of violence is defined by the courts, which could ultimately determine how immigrants fare in the U.S. legal system.
Lynch v. Dimaya, a case involving a legal resident of the U.S. who was twice convicted on burglary charges , forced the U.S. Supreme Court to go beyond a debate on definitions. The justices also considered the constitutionality of words like “crime of violence” or “aggravated felony,” and the accepted understanding of how those words apply to immigrants.
Joseph Dimaya immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1992 and achieved permanent resident status. Years later, he found himself on the wrong side of the law when he pleaded “no contest” to residential burglary charges in 2007 and 2009.
Even though Dimaya did not physically hurt anyone during the robberies, he faced aggravated felony charges. According to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), an immigrant convicted of aggravated felonies is subject to deportation, and in 2010, the Department of Homeland Security began the process to deport Dimaya.
An immigration judge agreed with DHS's move to toss Dimaya out, and the Board of Immigration Appeals backed the decision.
But last year, the former Philippines national filed a petition for review in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging INA for vagueness.
The Ninth Circuit conceded that the term "crime of violence" as it is laid out in U.S. code 18 of INA is too broad. The vagueness in the code, which is also commonly referred to as the residual clause, also extends to INA's definition of the term "aggravated felony."
The Ninth Circuit ultimately ruled that the code was "unconstitutionally vague."
The code says a crime of violence can 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."
In reaching its decision to side with Dimaya, the Ninth Circuit applied an earlier SCOTUS ruling, Johnson v. United States. In Johnson, the high court found a residual clause used in the context of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) to be too vague. That clause was almost identical to the INA code .
The residual clause in ACCA also made it difficult to know whether a particular crime would actually give way to violence.
How can one know the amount of force that might be applied in a burglary? If a home burglary occurs when the property is vacant, should the perpetrator remain subject to an aggravated felony charge?
Deputy Solicitor General Edwin S. Kneedler, arguing on behalf of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, attempted to avoid these ruminations.
Instead, Kneedler contended that concern over vague language found in the code should be dismissed in this instance since "the standard of vagueness application in an immigration proceeding is not the same as in a criminal proceeding."
Kneedler later referenced Mahler v. Eby, a 1924 ruling that he said "indicated that there could be a looser standard of vagueness in immigration cases."
But E. Joshua Rosencrantz, representing Dimaya, argued that the key distinction in his client's case was precisely about the differences between immigration statutes and criminal statutes.
"The language has already been interpreted," Rosencrantz told the justices.
"Mahler was a situation in which Congress has defined the crimes that would make you deportable. And the problem was that the attorney general could then exercise discretion as to whether he would deport you or not... But this Court said, no, the fact that there is discretion doesn't bother us," he said.
Justice Elena Kagan impatiently asked Rosencrantz if he merely wanted the court to write another opinion that "basically just repeats Johnson."
As Rosencrantz concluded his argument, he offered a warning to the justices.
"If you look at our brief with the host of examples of circuit conflicts, they are all coming here," he said. "They are all coming to this court, and this court will be overwhelmed with the exercise of trying to figure out what the ordinary case of each of those thousands of statutes is."
Rosencrantz reminded the court of how it had been similarly overwhelmed and finally gave up the exercise in Johnson.
"So we know that it's coming. We know where it's going to end. So this court should just end it here and it should end now," he said.
Kneedler also stepped forward for a few last words, but he was unable to avoid getting deeper into the muck around the role of administrative agencies like DHS.
Chief Justice Roberts, interrupting Kneedler before he could finish, announced that the case had been submitted.
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