Argument analysis: Justices divided on meaning of “sexual abuse of a minor” for removal purposes

This morning, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, a case that arose from the U.S. government’s effort to remove a lawful permanent resident for a “sex crime.” Judging from today’s argument, the justices appeared closely divided on the question of statutory interpretation before the court.

When Juan Esquivel-Quintana was 20 years old, he was convicted under California law for having consensual sex with his then-16-year-old girlfriend. An “aggravated felony” conviction generally requires mandatory removal of an immigrant from the United States and renders the immigrant ineligible for most forms of relief from removal. 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43) defines an “aggravated felony” to include the “sexual abuse of a minor.” Claiming that Esquivel-Quintana’s conviction constituted an “aggravated felony,” the U.S. government initiated removal proceedings against him, and the immigration court ordered him removed from the United States. The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed his appeal from the removal order. Applying the Supreme Court’s seminal 1984 decision in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, Inc.,the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit deferred to the BIA’s interpretation of “sexual abuse of a minor” and upheld the removal order. The dissent would have applied the rule of lenity, a judicial doctrine under which ambiguities in criminal law are resolved in favor of the defendant, to the interpretation of the criminal-removal provision in the immigration law and would have found that Esquivel-Quintana’s conviction was not an aggravated felony.

The question before the Supreme Court is whether Esquivel-Quintana’s conviction constitutes an “aggravated felony” as “sexual abuse of a minor” under U.S. immigration law. The case raises fascinating, and complex, questions about Chevron deference to an agency’s reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute and about the rule of lenity that is generally applied to the interpretation of removal and criminal laws.

Arguing on Esquivel-Quintana’s behalf, Jeffrey Fisher offered a multijurisdictional survey of state laws comparable to the California law to shed light on the meaning of “sexual abuse of a minor” in the immigration law. Justice Elena Kagan quickly began querying Fisher on his methodology for interpreting the statute. Fisher explained that it is appropriate to look at the laws of different states to discern the meaning of “sexual abuse of a minor” under federal law. Fisher later propounded an argument made in a “friend of the court” brief submitted by the Immigrant Defense Project – that there is a “readily apparent” federal definition of the phrase “sexual abuse of a minor.” According to Fisher, the phrase refers to the offense of the same name described in the Sexual Abuse Act of 1986, as amended in 1996, the same year “sexual abuse of a minor” was added as an aggravated felony to the immigration statute. That federal offense applies only to minors under 16 and not to all forms of consensual sexual contact. Under that “readily apparent” federal definition, Esquivel-Quintana’s conviction would not constitute an aggravated felony requiring removal.

At one point in Fisher’s argument, Justice Samuel Alito intervened to ensure that Fisher was not asking the court to overrule Chevron, prompting Fisher to state emphatically “no, no, no.” In response to another question from Alito, Fisher argued that the rule of lenity kicks in in favor of Esquivel-Quintana before Chevron deference can be applied. Chief Justice John Roberts seemed unconvinced, noting that “we’ve … most often said that the rule of lenity is something you apply when you’ve already exhausted the normal tools of statutory interpretation,” not “the other way around.” Kagan sought to come to the rescue in search of “a middle ground,” positing “a small exception to Chevron” in cases in which criminal laws come into play. Justice Stephen Breyer, a former administrative-law professor, did not buy this civil/criminal distinction.

Arguing on behalf of the federal government, Assistant to the Solicitor General Allon Kedem emphasized the need to employ traditional tools of statutory construction to interpret the reference to “sexual abuse of a minor” in the immigration law’s definition of an aggravated felony. Kagan complained that the United States had pointed to few sources with which to interpret the statute. She nonetheless seemed to think that the statute was sufficiently clear to decide the case, although not in the way that the government wanted.

With respect to Chevron, Kedem claimed that the government would win even without Chevron deference, because the statute plainly included the conduct proscribed by the California law. Alito suggested an alternative approach to support the government’s position – that the statute was in fact ambiguous and that through that ambiguity, Congress had afforded discretion to the attorney general to define the relevant term.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is often pivotal in close cases, asked Kedem a telling question about deference:

I can understand Chevron in the context of an agency that has special expertise in regulating the environment or the forest service or fisheries or nuclear power. Why   does the INS have any expertise on determining the meaning of a criminal statute?

Kennedy’s question suggested that he may be skeptical about the applicability of deference doctrine to this kind of case.

Asked by Roberts about the role of the rule of lenity, Kedem characterized it as a rule of last resort, coming into play only if all other interpretive methods have failed, which, in the government’s view, is not the case here.

Near the end of the argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg raised a question that arises in many criminal-removal cases. She stated that Esquivel-Quintana faces removal for a criminal offense that would not be a crime in the majority of states. With states moving toward decriminalization of marijuana possession and use, this kind of question will likely crop up even more frequently in the future.

In sum, the justices did not seem to have reached a consensus as to whether Esquivel-Quintana’s crime constituted “sexual abuse of a minor” under the immigration laws. The justices’ questions revealed the complicated interaction among the relevant statutory provisions; the high stakes of removal for lawful permanent residents, the complex state/federal issues involved, and the intersection of criminal and immigration law add to the difficulty and significance of this case. A decision is expected by the end of June.

Posted in: Analysis, Featured, Merits Cases

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