Conservative justices split in ruling for immigrant fighting deportation
A Supreme Court ruling Thursday in favor of an immigrant fighting deportation produced an unusual divide among the court’s conservative justices.
The 6-3 decision by Justice Neil Gorsuch was joined by fellow conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett, as well as the court’s three liberals. In dissent were conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
Siding with a Guatemalan immigrant who entered the U.S. in 2005, the majority held that federal officials had failed to give the man, Agusto Niz-Chavez, adequate notice of his deportation hearing, a finding with profound implications for longtime U.S. residents fighting deportation.
One requirement such immigrants must meet to fend off removal is a showing that they have resided in the country for at least 10 years. Had the government’s 2013 notice to Niz-Chavez been deemed lawful, it would have effectively stopped the clock tracking his continuous U.S. residency at eight years, below the threshold.
The rather technical dispute turned on the meaning of a single word — “a” — in a single provision of federal law. Specifically, the majority found the word to mean that federal officials must provide comprehensive notice of upcoming deportation hearings in a single document.
The government’s failure to comply strictly with this requirement — having spread the details of Niz-Chavez’s upcoming hearing across multiple forms — meant he had not been properly notified. The decision permits Niz-Chavez to seek permission to stay in the U.S.
“At one level, today’s dispute may seem semantic, focused on a single word, a small one at that,” Gorsuch wrote. “But words are how the law constrains power.”
“In this case, the law’s terms ensure that, when the federal government seeks a procedural advantage against an individual, it will at least supply him with a single and reasonably comprehensive statement of the nature of the proceedings against him,” he wrote.
Kavanaugh, in dissent, criticized the majority’s interpretation.
“The Court today agrees with Niz-Chavez that, in order to stop the 10-year clock, the Government must provide written notice in one document, not two,” he wrote. “I find the Court’s conclusion rather perplexing as a matter of statutory interpretation and common sense.”
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