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Supreme Court revives decades-old deportation dispute

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Supreme Court revives decades-old deportation dispute

The Supreme Court on Monday held a federal appeals court may hear the claims of two men seeking to have their removal proceedings reopened decades after they were deported for committing drug crimes.

The case concerned two men who were legal permanent residents but the federal government deported them after they were convicted of drug charges. After various court decisions and changes in federal law, both Pedro Pablo Guerrero-Lasprilla and Ruben Ovalles sought to have their cases reopened.

Both filed their motions well after the 90-day window required in federal immigration law, but the men argued that clock should have been paused. The Board of Immigration Appeals rejected both motions and the Fifth Circuit held it could not consider their claims because federal law prohibits immigrants convicted of crimes like theirs from having their appeals heard in a federal appeals court.

There is an exception to that prohibition that allows courts of appeals to hear cases that raise “questions of law.” Congress added that exception in response to the 2001 decision Immigration and Naturalization Service v. St. Cyr.

In a 7-2 decision on Monday, the court held that the issue of whether the clock on the men’s filings should have been paused is a “question of law” that federal appeals courts have jurisdiction to consider.

Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the presumption in favor of courts being able to review the actions of administrative agencies, coupled with the history, precedent and context of the provision limiting court review of immigration decisions, point to appeals courts having jurisdiction over claims like the ones Guerrero-Lasprilla and Ovalles raised.

“The resulting barrier to meaningful judicial review is thus a strong indication, given the presumption, that ‘questions of law’ does indeed include the application of law to established facts,” Breyer wrote. “That is particularly so given that the statutory context and history point to the same result.”

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined in part by Justice Samuel Alito, wrote Breyer’s opinion vastly overstepped, dragging federal appeals courts into many more immigration adjudications than Congress intended.

“In doing so, the majority effectively nullifies a jurisdiction-stripping statute, expanding the scope of judicial review well past the boundaries set by Congress,” Thomas wrote. “Because this arrogation of authority flouts both the text and structure of the statute, I respectfully dissent.”

Because the arguments from Guerrero-Lasprilla and Ovalles raise questions of both law and fact — which Breyer acknowledged in the majority opinion — the “plain language” of the statute clearly prevents courts from reviewing their claims, Thomas wrote.

Paul Hughes with the Washington, D.C. firm McDermott Will & Emery argued for the men before the Supreme Court and praised the court’s decision on Monday.

“In addition to its implications for immigration, this decision will aid all regulated parties who seek judicial review of agency action,” Hughes said in a statement. “The court again affirmed the importance of judicial review and ambiguity in jurisdictional statutes should be read to confer jurisdiction, not to remove it.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on the ruling.

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