Lynch v. Dimaya: Too vague?

The Supreme Court recently decided to hear an immigration case this term called Lynch v. Dimaya.  The case involves whether a federal statute is so vague that it is unconstitutional.

Last year, the Supreme Court held that a different federal statute was “void for vagueness” in a criminal case, Johnson v. United States.  The language in the statute that the Supreme Court rendered void for vagueness was:  “… or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

In Johnson, the Supreme Court concluded that the language allows for “uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime.”  The Court also stated that the language leaves “uncertainty about how much risk it takes for a crime to qualify as a violent felony.”

In the case before the Supreme Court at this time, Mr. Dimaya was convicted of a crime in a California criminal court.  After the criminal conviction, Mr. Dimaya was deemed to have committed an “aggravated felony” because his crime was a so-called “crime of violence” under a federal statute that states that a “crime of violence” includes “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.”

Let’s take another look at the language in these statutes:  In Johnson, the Supreme Court stated that this language is unconstitutionally vague:

 “ … otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

 In Dimaya, the language at issue is:

 “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.”

 The language of these two statutes appears to be remarkably similar.  In Dimaya, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson and concluded that, if the language in the statute from Johnson is unconstitutionally vague, then the language in the statute from Dimaya should also be considered to be unconstitutionally vague.

Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that the Supreme Court decided to hear Dimaya.  If the Supreme Court had simply declined to hear the case, then the Ninth Circuit’s decision would remain.  It appears that the Ninth Circuit was trying to follow the Supreme Court’s own decision in Johnson.

The U.S. government in Dimaya appears to be arguing that courts should treat the language at issue differently in immigration cases, which are deemed to be “civil” in nature, from the way that it should be treated in “criminal” cases.  In other words, the government appears to be stating that the language might be unconstitutionally vague in the criminal context, but not unconstitutionally vague in the civil immigration context.

The government’s position appears to contradict the Supreme Court’s position in Leocal v. Ashcroft, 543 U.S. 1 (2004), in which the Supreme Court stated:

 “Because [this Court] must interpret the statute consistently” in “both [its] criminal and noncriminal applications,” principles governing the criminal context, including the void-for-vagueness inquiry, must govern § 16 even “in the deportation context.”

 Leocal, 543 U.S. at 11 n.8.

For more information please take a look at the government’s petition to the Supreme Court, Mr. Dimaya’s opposition, and the government’s reply.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments about this case in the first half of 2017 and will likely issue a decision by June 2017.

Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch: Brief Update

The justices of the Supreme Court met on Friday, October 14, to review petitions, including our petition in Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch.  On Monday, October 17, the Court issued an order list, indicating their actions on a number of cases, including many cases in which the Court denied requests to hear the case.

Thankfully, the Court did not include our case among the list of denied cases.  Although we can’t be 100 percent sure, it appears likely that our case has been “relisted,” which means that the Court will probably consider our case at the next conference, scheduled for October 28.  On October 31, the Court will issue another order list.

Studies of the Court’s decisions show that for most cases that the Court decides to hear, the Court first “relists” the case, at least once.  For a thoughtful review of the relisting process, please take a look at this brief article posted by Michael Kimberly, John Elwood, and Ralph Mayrell.

We will continue provide updates on this case.

Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch: Our Reply Brief

We have now submitted our reply brief to the Supreme Court, in response to the Government’s brief in opposition to our petition.

In the reply, we take aim at the Government’s assertion that there is no significant disagreement among the circuit courts of appeals on the question of what constitutes “sexual abuse of a minor” in the context of consensual sex between a person age 16 or 17 and another person who is 3 years older.  We criticize the Government’s characterization of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Estrada-Espinoza v. Mukasey (2008), a unanimous decision of 11 judges that a conviction under California Penal Code 261.5(c) – the same statute under which our client was convicted – is not “sexual abuse of a minor.”

We also disagree with the Government’s assertion that the Ninth Circuit could change course and conclude that such a conviction is sexual abuse of a minor – we find such a possibility extremely unlikely.  And we find fault with the Government’s approach to the cases in the Fourth and Tenth Circuits – both finding that consensual sex in this context is not “sexual abuse of a minor.”

Perhaps even more importantly, the Government’s silence speaks volumes in response to our argument that the Supreme Court’s decision in Taylor v. United States applies to our case.  In its silence, the Government appears to either concede that Taylor applies, or else assume that it does not apply to our case.  If Taylor applies, then the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and the Sixth Circuit were required to consider a definition of the crime of conviction that is derived from the way in which the term is now used in the criminal codes of most states and federal law. 

And it is undeniable that the Federal Government, 43 states and the District of Columbia have laws that do not criminalize consensual sex between a 17-year-old and a person 3 years older.  According to the requirements of Taylor, a definition of “sexual abuse of a minor” could not include a conviction under California Penal Code 261.5(c).

In our reply to the Government’s opposition, we also assert that the Sixth Circuit should not have deferred to the BIA’s decision under a 1984 Supreme Court case called Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, for two reasons.  First, the approach required by Taylor resolves the issue, and deference to the BIA is not warranted.  Second, because the term “sexual abuse of a minor” has both criminal and civil applications in federal law, the criminal rule of lenity trumps Chevron deference.

The Government appears to be arguing that the term “sexual abuse of a minor” can mean two different things – it can mean one thing in a civil proceeding, and a different thing in a criminal proceeding.  The Government’s position goes against numerous Supreme Court cases stating that a statute must mean the same thing in all contexts.

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will be considering whether to accept our case for consideration.  The odds are stacked against us.  The Supreme Court only accepts about 5 percent of the cases presented to it, despite the fact that many of those cases are wrongly decided at the appeals court level.  We hope that we can beat the odds in this case.

The Importance of Definitions in the Law

This week, we plan to file our reply to the Government’s opposition to our petition in the Supreme Court in Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch.  For now, I would like to focus on the importance of definitions in the law.

Our client was convicted of a crime under a statute in California – California Penal Code 261.5(c) – that makes it a crime to have consensual sex between a person under age 18 and another person more than 3 years older.  That conduct is perfectly legal under federal law – see 18 U.S. Code Section 2243 – and the laws of 43 states and the District of Columbia.  California is one of only 7 states that makes such conduct a crime.

Here is where the importance of definitions comes in.  In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called Taylor v. United States, declared that in order to increase a prison sentence under a federal statute for persons who re-offend, the reviewing court must work with a definition of the crime at issue that is clear and uniform throughout the country.

In Taylor, the crime at issue was burglary.  The problem in that case was that each of the 50 states had their own separate definitions of what “burglary” was.  Mr. Taylor was convicted of burglary under a state statute, but his prison sentence was being increased because of a federal statute.  The Supreme Court ruled that reviewing courts need a clear working definition of “burglary” – a definition that the reviewing court needs to determine based on a number of sources, including federal law, the laws of the 50 states, and other sources.

In subsequent cases, the Supreme Court has held that the requirement in Taylor applies in cases involving noncitizens who have been convicted of crimes and who are subsequently charged in Immigration Court as being removable or “deportable” from the United States as a result of their criminal convictions.  If a noncitizen is convicted of a crime under a state law, then the reviewing courts in the subsequent removal proceedings – Immigration Courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), and U.S. courts of appeals – must work with a definition of the crime of conviction that is derived from the contemporary, “generic sense in which the term is now used in the criminal codes of most States,” federal law, and the Model Penal Code. Taylor v. United States, 495 U.S. 575, 598 (1990).

Since at least 2007, in a case called Gonzales v. Duenas-Alvarez, the Supreme Court has applied this requirement from Taylor to the immigration context.  In subsequent cases, including as recently as June 2016, the Supreme Court has continued to require courts to determine a definition of the crime of conviction based on federal law, the laws of most states, and other factors.  See, for example, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Nijhawan v. Holder, (2009), Kawashima v. Holder, (2012), and Moncrieffe v. Holder, (2013).  In the Supreme Court’s most recent case citing Taylor, although the case did not directly address an immigration matter, the Supreme Court mentioned the application of Taylorto immigration cases.  Mathis v. United States, (2016).

In our case, we argue that the requirement of Taylor v. United States applies.  And we argue that the fact that the conduct for which our client was convicted is perfectly legal under federal law, as well as the laws of 43 states and the District of Columbia, means that under Taylor, our client’s conviction is not an “aggravated felony” under immigration law, because conduct that is perfectly legal in such a large majority of the country, and under federal law, could not meet the definition of “sexual abuse of a minor” under the requirements of Taylor.

In their brief in opposition, the Government mentioned Taylor in only one paragraph in which the Government described the Sixth Circuit’s approach to our case.  The Government did not argue that Taylor does not apply.

We will be following up later this week regarding our reply to the Government’s brief in opposition in our case at the Supreme Court.

Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch: Government’s Opposition

On July 11, 2016, my colleagues and I submitted a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision of the Sixth Circuit that upheld the Board of Immigration Appeals holding that my client’s conviction is an aggravated felony.

On September 16, 2016, the Solicitor General of the United States, the office representing the U.S. government against my client, submitted a brief in opposition to our petition.

As I explained in an earlier posting about our petition, we have several reasons for requesting review by the Supreme Court.  

First, the U.S. Courts of Appeals are deeply divided over the question of whether a conviction like my client’s – consensual sex between a 21-year-old and a person just under age 18 – is an “aggravated felony” under U.S. immigration law.

Second, we all need to receive a clear definition of what “sexual abuse of a minor” is, and what it is not.  Only by knowing what the immigration and deportation consequences of a conviction actually are may we all act accordingly – noncitizens, prosecutors, and attorneys representing noncitizens.

Third, we believe that the Sixth Circuit made an incorrect decision in our case.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called Taylor v. United States, requires a clear definition of what constitutes a particular crime.  In our case, we need to know exactly what “sexual abuse of a minor” is, and what it is not.  Under the federal law, the laws of 43 states, and the law of the District of Columbia, consensual sex between a person age 21 and person just under age 18 is not a crime at all.  Under the Supreme Court’s holding in Taylor v. United States, the BIA should have provided a clear definition of what “sexual abuse of a minor” is, and it appears clear that my client’s conviction is not “sexual abuse of a minor.”

The Solicitor General’s brief in opposition claims that there exists no conflicts among the courts of appeal about the definition of “sexual abuse of a minor.”  The government’s assertion appears to ignore the decisions of the 4th, 9th, and 10th Circuits, all of which have rejected the BIA’s case law regarding “sexual abuse of a minor.”

The Solicitor General also argues that the 9th Circuit could, in future cases, agree with the BIA’s decision in Matter of Esquivel-Quintana, the BIA’s decision in our case.  The Solicitor General’s assertion appears extremely unlikely to become a reality.  First, the Department of Homeland Security is not likely to prosecute cases within the 9th Circuit because of the 9th Circuit’s unanimous en banc decision in Estrada-Espinoza v. Mukasey, which held that a conviction for consensual sex between a person under age 18 and a person more than 3 years older – the exact same statute under which my client was convicted – is not an aggravated felony for purposes of immigration law.

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security did not prosecute my client until he left the 9th Circuit and moved to Michigan, in the 6th Circuit.  Second, even if the Department of Homeland Security decided to prosecute such cases within the 9th Circuit, it is not likely that the 9th Circuit would follow the BIA’s holding in our case.  To do so would require the 9th Circuit to have another en banc decision to overturn its own precedent.  This is not likely, in light of the fact that the 9th Circuit has repeatedly followed and reaffirmed its own precedent in this area of the law.

The Solicitor General’s brief in opposition largely appears to ignore our argument that the BIA and the Sixth Circuit failed to comply with the requirements of Taylor v. United States.  Apparently, the Solicitor General might be taking the position that Taylor does not apply to our case.

I will continue to post updates regarding this case as it develops in the weeks and months ahead.

Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch: “Sleeper” Case?

Next week, we expect to receive the Solicitor General’s response to our petition to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari in Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch.  And, we expect that in October, the Supreme Court will be considering whether or not to accept the case for review.

Meanwhile, David Feder has posted about the case in the Yale Journal on Regulation.

Mr. Feder was one of the attorneys representing the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court regarding our case.

In his post, Mr. Feder argues that if the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, the Court should take the approach that Chevron deference is not appropriate in this case because the statute at issue is a hybrid statute – a civil statute that has criminal law applications.  If the Court takes this approach, then the Court could conclude that the rule of lenity applies, which would mean that if the statute at issue is ambiguous, then my client’s conviction should not be considered to be an “aggravated felony” for purposes of immigration law.

We will continue to provide updates regarding this case.

Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch: Amicus Brief

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) has submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of our petition.

For more details on this case, please visit:  Cert Petition.   Introduction.   Part 1.  Part 2.   Sixth Circuit Decision.

The NACDL brief asks the Supreme Court to hear our case for two main reasons – because the criminal rule of lenity is important and should be applied to this case, and because the Sixth Circuit’s and the BIA’s handling of the case results in serious problems for persons accused of certain crimes, criminal defense lawyers, and immigration lawyers.

First, NACDL explains that the list of crimes labeled “aggravated felonies” in the Immigration and Nationality Act makes up a statute that has both civil and criminal applications, and is thus referred to as a “hybrid” statute.  The NACDL argues, in agreement with Judge Jeffrey Sutton’s dissent in the Sixth Circuit decision in our case, that if the “hybrid” statute at issue in our case is “ambiguous,” meaning capable of two or more different valid interpretations, then the criminal rule of lenity applies.

The rule of lenity is similar to the baseball rule that the “tie goes to the batter” – if the runner gets to the base at exactly the same time as the fielder with the ball, then the runner is safe.  Similarly, if a statute with criminal applications is ambiguous, then the statute must be interpreted in a manner that is more favorable to the criminal defendant.

Second, NACDL argues that the BIA and the Sixth Circuit handled the categorical approach in an improper way that led to the result against my client.  The Supreme Court has stated, in a number of cases, that agencies such as the BIA and reviewing courts must use a “generic, contemporary definition” of a crime – a definition that is shared by a majority of states, as well as the federal government.

At issue in this case is the definition of “sexual abuse of a minor.”  A major problem with the way the BIA and the Sixth Circuit handled this case is that neither ever provided a “generic, contemporary defintion” of what “sexual abuse of a minor” actually IS.  As a result, my client was labeled as an “aggravated felon” and deported from the United States, because he engaged in conduct that is perfectly legal under federal law, as well as the laws of 43 states and the District of Columbia.  As NACDL explains, the BIA and the Sixth Circuit failed to apply the categorical approach correctly in this case.

Because we still don’t know exactly what “sexual abuse of a minor” is, because the BIA has not told us what it is, criminal defense attorneys and immigration lawyers are not able to properly advise their clients who have been charged with certain crimes, because no one knows whether a certain crime will end up being labeled as an “aggravated felony,” because, again, we don’t have a clear definition of what “sexual abuse of a minor” is.

NACDL urges the Supreme Court to hear this case, in order to clear up the disagreements among the circuit courts, to address the issue of the rule of lenity, and to provide a proper application of the categorical approach, so that we will all be able to know, once and for all, what the “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor” is, and what it is not.

Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch: Cert Petition

I have been representing Mr. Esquivel-Quintana in his immigration case since 2013.  In previous posts, I have described details about the case.  You may find them here:   Introduction.   Part 1.   Part 2.   Sixth Circuit Decision.

In a nutshell, the Board of Immigration Appeals concluded that Mr. Esquivel-Quintana, who came to the United States as a lawful permanent resident at age 12, is an “aggravated felon” because he was convicted in California of engaging in consensual sex with his girlfriend when he was 21 and she was under 18.  The U.S. government deported Mr. Esquivel-Quintana after the BIA’s decision.  The U.S. Court of Appeals, in a divided 2-1 decision, upheld the Board’s decision.

Today, July 11, 2016, in collaboration with Jeffrey Fisher, Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and Co-Director of Stanford’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, and other professors at Stanford, we are submitting a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In our petition, which you may view here, we are asking the Supreme Court to review Sixth Circuit’s decision.

With very few exceptions, the U.S. Supreme Court has the discretion to grant or deny any petition for review.  The Supreme Court declines to review of the vast majority of petitions presented.  Despite these odds, we hope that the Supreme Court will decide to hear our case.

In asking the Supreme Court to review the Sixth Circuit’s decision, we are focusing on the fact that the Board of Immigration Appeals in this case has concluded that conduct that is legal under federal law, in 43 states and in the District of Columbia is an aggravated felony for purposes of immigration law.  Moreover, six of the seven states that criminalize this conduct treat it simply as technically unlawful sex; those states have separate crimes on the books that they label as “sexual abuse” of a minor, for conduct that is more serious than simply consensual sex between a person age 21 and a person under age 18.

We have several reasons for requesting review by the Supreme Court.  First, the U.S. Courts of Appeals have deep disagreements regarding the question of whether the conviction at issue in this case – consensual sex between a 21-year-old and a person just under age 18 – is an “aggravated felony” under U.S. immigration law.  Four appeals courts agree with the BIA that such conduct is an aggravated felony:  the Second, Third, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits.  Three appeals courts have determined that such conduct is not an aggravated felony:  the Fourth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits.

Second, this case presents an issue that is extremely important for many noncitizens, as well as criminal prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys throughout the nation.  Immigrants, prosecutors, and defense attorneys all need to know what the law is, in order to act accordingly.  Mr. Esquivel-Quintana was convicted in California, which is in the Ninth Circuit, which had decided already in previous cases that the conviction is not an aggravated felony.  Mr. Esquivel-Quintana then moved to Michigan, where he was arrested and detained by U.S. immigration officials and eventually deported as an “aggravated felon” because Michigan is in the Sixth Circuit, which decided (in Mr. Esquivel-Quintana’s case) that his California conduct is an “aggravated felony.”  The Sixth Circuit reached this conclusion despite the fact that in Michigan, consensual sex between a person age 21 and a person just under 18 is perfectly legal.  So, persons convicted of this crime in a jurisdiction that has ruled that it is not an aggravated felony are safe, but by crossing state lines into a jurisdiction in which a court of appeals has determined that such conduct is an aggravated felony, are subject to being labeled as “aggravated felons” and deported, as Mr. Esquivel-Quintana was.  This situation makes it extremely difficult for prosecutors and attorneys to inform noncitizens of how to plead to criminal charges, and even where to travel within the United States.

Third, we assert that the Sixth Circuit’s decision in this case was incorrect.  In our view, the BIA and the Sixth Circuit ignored the Supreme Court’s requirements for clearly defining what the meaning of “sexual abuse of a minor” is.  The fact that federal law, 43 states, and the District of Columbia all deem consensual sex between a 21-year-old and a person just under age 18 to be perfectly legal should have led the BIA and the Sixth Circuit to conclude that such conduct is not “sexual abuse of a minor” under federal immigration law.

As noted above, the Supreme Court declines the review the vast majority of cases presented.  We hope that the Supreme Court will decide that our case is one of those few cases that the Supreme Court decides to review.

We will keep you updated on the progress of our petition.  We expect that the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to review our case either by the end of 2016 or by early 2017.

Justice Scalia’s Death and the DAPA Case

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia adds uncertainty to the pending case before the Court regarding the legality of President Obama’s DAPA program.

The case, United States v. Texas, is scheduled on the Supreme Court’s current docket.  Of course, it’s uncertain how each individual justice will vote in the case, but it’s fair to guess that Justice Scalia might have concluded that the DAPA program is unconstitutional or otherwise in violation of the law.

President Obama has indicated that he plans to nominate a person to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.  So far, Republican Senate leaders have indicated that they plan to block or otherwise thwart President Obama’s efforts to fill the vacancy before he leaves office on January 20, 2017.

If the DAPA case is heard by the current 8 justices on the Supreme Court, there is the possibility that the justices could split 4-4 on the legality of the program.  A 4-4 split would leave the lower court’s ruling intact.  In that scenario, DAPA would not be able to be implemented.

It’s possible, although unlikely, that the Senate would confirm President Obama’s nominee to the Court by the time the DAPA case is argued.

Another possibility is that the Court would decide to postpone the hearing of the DAPA case until the next term, which begins in October 2016.  In that scenario, it is likely that a decision would not be issued in the case in time for President Obama to begin implementation of the DAPA program before he leaves office.