The Supreme Court yesterday ruled that legal immigrants cannot be deported from the United States when convicted of minor drug-possession offenses deemed felonies by some states, but less-serious misdemeanors under federal law.
In a setback for President Bush, the high court described as wrong the administration's interpretation of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1996, which said that anyone convicted of an aggravated felony could be deported. The court said the definition does not include state offenses treated as misdemeanors under federal law.
In the majority opinion written by Justice David H. Souter, the court said the administration's interpretation "would often turn simple possession into trafficking … and that result makes us very wary of the government's position."
Justice Souter wrote that without some further explanation, giving a misdemeanor charge felony status "would be so much trickery."
"Congress can define an aggravated felony of illicit trafficking in an unexpected way," he wrote. "But Congress would need to tell us so, and there are good reasons to think it was doing no such thing here."
In 2005, the U.S. government deported nearly 77,000 immigrants with criminal records—7,000 of whom had arrests for drug possession.
The case is called Lopez v. Gonzales; full decision here. [UPDATED thanks to commenter FinFangFoom]
Linda Greenhouse at New York Times on how the Supreme Court this year is apparently working less hard than ever, with "40 percent fewer cases so far this term than last" and "The number of cases the court decided with signed opinions last term, 69, was the lowest since 1953 and fewer than half the number the court was deciding as recently as the mid-1980s."