Civil Rights

Justice from the Supreme Court for Immigrants Hit with Drug Charges

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From the Washington Times account:

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."

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  1. I read the headline as “Justice from Supreme Court Hit with Drug Charges.”

    Don’t get my hopes up that way.

  2. I read that headline and thought: “There’s a Supreme Court for Immigrants? And one of the Justices from it was hit with drug charges?”

  3. Link is broken.

  4. While the result here is the right one in the global moral sense, I don’t see how it can be justified constitutionally.

    After all, a federal government legislating within its proper constitutional powers would have precious few felonies on the books. If someone can’t be deported for a state-legislated felony, then they’re not going to be deported for murder.

    If the argument is that deportation should defer to state felonies unless there is a concurrent federal law, then I would say that Congress’s version of the law may be — in fact, constitutionally ought to be — formulated for separate reasons for a separate problem.

    If, on the other hand, the Supreme Court wants to take the more simple fundamental position that legislation against drugs violates the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, I’m all for that!

  5. FFF–Thanks; updated w/link and hat tip to you.

  6. Looks basically like an argument over the meaning of the language of a particular statute. The decision was eight to one, with Thomas as the lone dissenter.

  7. What?! Thomas the lone dissenter?
    Juh?

  8. First off, the only SCOTUS decision I can think of from this millennium that I approve of, is interstate wine. So the less the SCOTUS does the better (and really isn’t that true of all government bodies).

    Secondly, I’d be happier about this if I didn’t think it will result in making possession of a seed a federal felony.

  9. So not only is the Supreme Court full of intellectually and morally bankrupt mother fuckers, they are lazy motherfuckers to boot.

  10. Whoa, I just read Thomas’s dissent. What a dipshit. This guy gives me hope that maybe I can get on the Supreme Court. Here’s the short version: Thomas would classify “aiding and abetting the possession of cocaine” as a “drug trafficking felony.” The offense wasn’t even possession. It was aiding and abetting possession, and Thomas thinks this is equivalent to trafficking. This jackass will say anything. It is nice that we have a Supreme Court Justice who hears “drugs” and “immigrant” and says “case closed.” Not even Scalia could sign on to that trash.

  11. Lamar,
    Sorry, but the Controlled Substances Act classifies aiding and abetting as a drug trafficking crime, and the state of South Dakota classifies it as a felony. Which Thomas spells out in his second paragraph (or didn’t you read that far).

    As much as I like the effect of the majority in this case, the man just writes devastating descents.

  12. Warren:

    Are you kidding? First, it is a dissent, not a descent.

    Second, Thomas’s second paragraph is purely conclusory. He just glosses over the fact that the “trafficking” must be a felony when the same statute he cites to defines the crime as a misdemeanor! Pick and choose much?

    Disclosure: there are accepted principles in statutory construction that Thomas apparently didn’t get in law school. Too busy with ass grabbing I guess.

    You just reiterated Thomas’s piss poor argument that couldn’t even sway Scalia. Perhaps you should write your own “descent.”

  13. Wow Lamar – Is that really all you got out of that dissent? “drugs”, “immigrant”, “case closed”? Thats an honest question; the following is just me being a dick: Methinks you project with the dipshit comment.
    -K

  14. Charles Darwin wrote a “Descent.” 😉

  15. First, it is a dissent, not a descent.

    Yeah, my bad. If it makes it past the spellchecker I’m good with it.

    I don’t know about “accepted principles in statutory construction” but Thomas’ dissent looks straight forward and on point compared with a contorted and irrelevant majority to this mouth breather.

  16. And as far as Scalia goes, he ruled the way he always rules; The states are just quaint anachronisms. The only law that matters is Federal law.

    Nothing to see here. Move along you looky-loos

  17. So, how long before Congress votes to up the classification for possession and other drug related crimes to close this loophole?

  18. “Thomas’ dissent looks straight forward and on point compared with a contorted and irrelevant majority.”

    It’s simple. In order for the law to mean what Justice Thomas wants it to mean, the legislature would have had to be explicit. Otherwise it leads to absurd results. Basically, Thomas’s view would make federal immigration law different in each state. Also, the federal law would change everytime a state changes its law, even though Congress hasn’t acted to change the law. No, I think it is pretty clear that Thomas is so far out there on this issue that saying “drugs, immigrants, case closed” is actually being kind to Thomas. More likely he’s just a dumbass.

  19. Basically, Thomas’s view would make federal immigration law different in each state. Also, the federal law would change everytime a state changes its law, even though Congress hasn’t acted to change the law.

    Why shouldn’t it be this way? I haven’t looked into the law enough to know whether the the INA is simply a laundry list of ticky-tack political felonies for which one can be deported, or rather, as it should be, an elucidation of the more rational “You can be deported for committing a felony.”

    The ostensible reason for deporting felons is that they have proven they can’t live in polite society. If stealing 1000 gallons of ranch water in Nevada is a felony while stealing 1000 gallons of ranch water in Tennessee is a misdemeanor, then the immigrant convicted of the crime in Nevada should be deported while the one in Tennessee should not be deported.

    And whether the theft of ranch water from BLM lands is a felony or a misdemeanor should not enter into the question.

  20. “Why shouldn’t it be this way?”

    First, if it “should” be that way, you need to convince the legislature of Tennessee to make water stealing a felony.

    Also, it shouldn’t be that way because (1) you would have extrememly different punishments for the exact same behavior, (2) Congress would be forced to monitor the effect of every state law on federal legislation, and respond to changes in state law that negatively affect the intent of the federal legislation and (3) you elect congress and your state government to deal with drug and immigration issues. You do NOT elect your neighboring state’s legislature. It is unrepresentative to allow an unelected legislature determine the law.

  21. (1) It’s the exact same behavior, but it doesn’t have the exact same result. In Nevada, the herd on the victim’s ranch dies. In Tennessee, the victim simply turns on the pump for a few minutes to get more water into the troughs. That’s why it’s a felony in one state and not in the other.

    (2) The intent of the federal legislation is presumably to deport immigrants who can’t behave according to minimal societal standards. It is up to individual communities to determine those societal standards, within the Fourteenth Amendment of course.

    (3) The felony committed in Nevada is prosecuted in Nevada under Nevada law. It is as representative as a republic can be. It would be unrepresentative for people in Tennessee to determine the law for people in Nevada.

    If you want to eliminate states and state legislation, just come out and say so. As for me, I will hold on to the quaint notion that the federal government is one of limited powers and that state legislation takes up the slack.

  22. “In Nevada, the herd on the victim’s ranch dies. In Tennessee, the victim simply turns on the pump for a few minutes to get more water into the troughs. That’s why it’s a felony in one state and not in the other.”

    Other than being pure speculation, this assertion has several problems. You seem to forget that we are talking about FEDERAL legislation. Show me one piece of federal legislation that says, “doing X in Nevada gets you 25 years, while doing the same x in Tennesse gets you 6 months.” The 14th Amendment requires people in similar situations to receive similar treatment. Providing harsher penalties to residents of Nevada than to residents of Tennessee gives rise to serious 14th Amendment problems. Keep in mind, in NV, you do felony time while in TN you do misdemeanor time. The federal law doesn’t change that.

    “(2) The intent of the federal legislation is presumably to deport immigrants who can’t behave according to minimal societal standards.”

    Bingo. Societal standards are very different than community standards. So no, individual communities do NOT get to decide federal law. They get to decide state and local law. That’s the nature of federalism. Another issue your theory can’t handle is conflict of laws. What happens if a person can be convicted under both Nevada and Tennessee law? Do we automatically take the harsher of the two penalties? Keep in mind, the person cannot be convicted twice for the same crime.

    “(3) The felony committed in Nevada is prosecuted in Nevada under Nevada law. It is as representative as a republic can be. It would be unrepresentative for people in Tennessee to determine the law for people in Nevada.”

    You are confusing federal and state laws. We are talking about a FEDERAL statute. That federal statute can’t change depending on geography, rednecktitude or bleedingheartalism. NV punishes the NV crime, and the Federal system punishes the federal crime. If you break a federal law, you implicitly break a law that your elected officials helped create. If the only reason that you broke that federal law is because a sister state has different laws than your home state, you will have been punished under a law that you didn’t not vote for.

    “If you want to eliminate states and state legislation, just come out and say so. As for me,”

    Oh, get off it. This makes no sense. We’re talking about FEDERAL legislation. F-E-D-E-R-A-L. Wishing and hoping and praying that the federal government were more limited doesn’t change the fact that there is a federal law that must be applied consistently throughout the land. And it’s immigration, clearly a federal issue. But your argument is telling. You WANT the states to have more power, so you are reading into the statute something that just isn’t there.

    “I will hold on to the quaint notion that the federal government is one of limited powers and that state legislation takes up the slack.”

    Yeah, you are forgetting that immigration is purely a Federal issue. Why don’t you check out that “quaint” Constitution?

  23. But your argument is telling. You WANT the states to have more power, so you are reading into the statute something that just isn’t there.

    No. I want governments to abide by their own written rules, and I’m reading into the Constitution something that has long been forgotten.

    As I said, I haven’t read the statute in question. If I am wrong — if the essense of the law is not “felon immigrants do not deserve to live in the US” but rather “here is a fairly arbitrary list of felonies that make an immigrant not deserve to live in the US” — then your perspective may be the right one with respect to the law.

    Yeah, you are forgetting that immigration is purely a Federal issue. Why don’t you check out that “quaint” Constitution?

    You mean the Constitution that explicitly empowers the federal government to regulate naturalization but says nothing about migration except in reference to the slave trade? Or are you imagining another one.

  24. Fair enough. My point is that there is little consistency in the federal law if federal laws were contingent on each states constantly changing laws.

    Is it your argument that immigration is a state law construct, that there should be 50 different immigration laws? All an alien would have to do is emigrate to the easiest state, then move whereever they want, protected by the full faith and credit clause. It seems bizarre to say that the government of a sovereign nation cannot protect its borders or exclude people. That sort of defeats the purpose of sovereignty.

  25. Is it your argument that immigration is a state law construct, that there should be 50 different immigration laws?

    While I would argue that that’s what the Constitution says, I would also say that, had the US actually abided by the Constitution in the past, the issue you bring up would have been rectified by amendment in the 1880’s, 1920’s, or, indeed, today.

    It seems bizarre to say that the government of a sovereign nation cannot protect its borders or exclude people. That sort of defeats the purpose of sovereignty.

    Not to turn this into an immigration debate, but I would argue that the government of a sovereign nation can indeed protect its borders and exclude people. However, it can legitimately exclude people only for reasons of compelling public interest such as their being agents of a foreign power or carrying a communicable disease. Requiring a government to secure inalienable individual rights, even of individuals who are trying to migrate into the country, does not defeat its sovereignty.

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