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Opinion Recap: Nijhawan v. Holder

Former Stanford clinic student Brian Goldman discusses Monday’s decision in No. 08-495.

After two decisions earlier this Term favoring non-citizens’ interpretations of immigration-related statutes (Flores-Figueroa v. United States and Nken v. Holder), the Supreme Court ruled unanimously for the government on Monday, June 15, in Nijhawan v. Holder. The Court held that to deport an immigrant for committing an “aggravated felony” that “involves fraud or deceit in which the loss to the . . . victims exceeds $10,000,” the underlying fraud offense need not include the minimum loss amount as a statutory element of the crime. Instead, “the monetary threshold applies to the specific circumstances surrounding an offender’s commission of a fraud and deceit crime on a specific occasion,” which could be determined during removal proceedings before an Immigration Court.

Writing for the Court, Justice Breyer began by characterizing the two competing interpretations of the “aggravated felony” definition. A “categorical” interpretation would require that the “generic crime” include the loss amount, such that only a conviction of some offense criminalizing frauds over $10,000 would permit deportation. A “circumstance-specific” approach, on the other hand, would limit the loss-amount trigger “to the specific way in which an offender committed the crime on a specific occasion,” even if the statutory offense itself required no threshold.

Distinguishing cases interpreting the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), which have applied the “categorical” approach, the Court noted that although the “aggravated felony” statute “resembles ACCA in certain respects,” its structure and context suggest that the “circumstance-specific” approach is correct here. Looking to other offenses defined as “aggravated felonies” when certain threshold conditions are present, the Court observed that if the limiting language were required as an element of each crime, rather than a circumstance in a specific instance of the crime, no existing statutes would fit the bill. So “if the [categorization of those offenses as aggravated felonies] is to have any meaning at all, the [limitations] must refer to the particular circumstances in which an offender committed the crime on a particular occasion.” Returning to the fraud offense at issue, the Court found “no widely applicable federal fraud statute that contains the relevant monetary loss threshold,” and only three with thresholds at all, all of which were at least $100,000. The Court asked, rhetorically, “Why would Congress intend [the provision] to apply to only these three federal statutes, and then choose a monetary threshold that, on its face, would apply to other, nonexistent statutes as well?” Because few state fraud statutes would be included either, the Court concluded that Congress would not have intended the provision “to apply in so limited and so haphazard a manner.”

Finally, the Court held that to determine whether the threshold had been met in a given case, the circumstances of an offender’s fraud need not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt nor found specifically by a jury. Those higher burdens had been developed in prior ACCA cases “for a very different purpose,” and are not necessary in civil immigration proceedings that impose a “clear and convincing” standard only. Because in this case Nijhawan had previously stipulated to a loss amount far in excess of $10,000, the Court found that this burden had been met and so his deportation could proceed.