Supreme Court cites Immigrant Rights Clinic’s work in major opinion on immigration law

On April 23, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 7-2 opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, that a non-citizen should not be automatically deported for “the social sharing of a small amount of marijuana.” The opinion cited not only an article by Professor Alina Das ’05 published in theNYU Law Review, but also an amicus brief written by Das and Immigrant Rights Clinic students Pierce Suen ’13 and Jordan Wells ’13 on behalf of more than 80 immigration law professors.

Moncrieffe v. Holder involved a Jamaican national who had lived in the U.S. since age three. After he was convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana with intent to distribute, federal officials treated his guilty plea in state court as the admission of an aggravated felony, automatically triggering deportation back to Jamaica. The Court ruled that the state and federal laws at issue do not cover the same type of conduct and that deportation for the crime in question should not be automatic, thus giving Adrian Moncrieffe the chance to ask for readmission to the U.S.

Sotomayor’s opinion cites Das’s 2011 article “The Immigration Penalties of Criminal Convictions: Resurrecting Categorical Analysis in Immigration Law.” In that piece, Das argues that the longstanding practice of categorical analysis, in which courts and immigration officials determine penalties in immigration law cases by looking at the statutory definition of an offense rather than the actual facts of the crime, had more recently been eroded by decisions in immigration cases that utilize factual circumstances beyond the findings of a criminal court. In such instances, Das asserts, the immigration repercussions of criminal convictions can hinge on facts neither proven nor pleaded in criminal court. The brief written by the Immigrant Rights Clinic, also cited in the Court’s opinion, uses the same reasoning, arguing that labeling non-citizens as aggravated felons when they are caught with small amounts of marijuana “deprives immigration adjudicators of the power to consider favorable equities, humanitarian concerns, and the public interest.”

separate amicus brief filed by NYU Law’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law argues that a review of state marijuana distribution laws showed the lower court’s ruling against Moncrieffe “conflicts with the goals of state criminal justice systems, fails to take into account how state drug offenses are prosecuted, and leads to inequalities by jurisdiction.”

Das was pleased that the Court’s opinion “emphasizes the importance of taking the traditional, commonsense approach to analyzing the immigration consequences of criminal convictions like drug offenses. It cuts against the government's overreaching arguments that would apply the ‘drug trafficking aggravated felony’ label to countless immigrants with minor convictions who merely seek the opportunity to apply for asylum or cancellation of removal before an immigration judge. We're thrilled to see the Court set the record straight on how these convictions should be treated in immigration court."

Suen, who was “ecstatic” about the decision’s bolstering of legal protections for immigrants facing deportation, observed that “Justice Sotomayor's majority opinion basically tracks the arguments that Professor Das made in her seminal law review article. Working on the Moncrieffe amicus really encapsulated my experience here at NYU Law and with the Immigrant Rights Clinic. It has been a transformative two years working not only with professors at the very cutting edge of these legal issues, and who demonstrate an incredible command of law, argument, and legal strategy, but also inspiring peers like Jordan Wells.”
Wells stressed the importance of the stories that individuals in the immigration system shared with the Court, which, he said, “brought home the unfairness and impracticality of proving facts for the first time in immigration court, when the individual may be detained and without access to counsel or to evidence that was irrelevant in criminal court.” He also deemed the victory “bittersweet in that lots of great people would have been able to remain in their communities if, over the past several years, the agency and courts had applied the rule that the Supreme Court reaffirmed.”

Posted on April 24, 2013