Today, the Supreme Court decided Sessions v. Dimaya, in which the respondent appealed his deportation. It is an interesting decision both legally and politically.
The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) renders deportable any alien convicted of an “aggravated felony” after entering the United States. The definition of “aggravated felony” includes several enumerated crimes, and also a residual definition of a “crime of violence”, which reads as follows:
“(a) an offense that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force
against the person or property of another, or
“(b) any other 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.”
Dimaya, a documented immigrant from the Philippines, had two convictions for burglary, neither of which involved violence. Nonetheless, immigration authorities found that the convictions satisfied the “aggravated felony” residual clause, and therefore triggered automatic deportation.
Today, SCOTUS struck down the definition as unconstitutionally vague. Justice Kagan, reminding us that the court applies “the most exacting vagueness standard. . . in removal cases”, relied on Johnson v. United States to argue that the law in its current form does not provide sufficient warning about deportation consequences of criminal convictions.
Also important is the fact that Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s appointee to the Supreme Court, voted with the four liberal Justices to vacate the law. While newsworthy, this is hardly a surprise for those familiar with Gorsuch’s record on criminal justice. He has publicly and consistently spoken against the abundance of criminal laws on the books and his position on overcriminalization and vagueness was well known at the time of his appointment.
Moreover, today’s decision relies on Johnson, a pro-defendant decision on a similar issue authored by Justice Scalia, also a conservative who would side with defendants in cases involving overcriminalization and vagueness.
While encouraging and fair, today’s decision is hardly surprising… except, perhaps, at the White House, where consistency of opinion is valued less than dogged personal loyalty.