Argument analysis: Justices seem primed to find constitutional limits on the detention of immigrants

Argument analysis: Justices seem primed to find constitutional limits on the detention of immigrantsYesterday, the Supreme Court heard reargument in Jennings v. Rodriguez, a class-action constitutional challenge to a variety of provisions of the immigration laws allowing for immigrant detention. After the oral argument last term, the court asked for further briefing on the constitutionality of the detention of immigrants. With the Trump administration promising to increase the […]

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Argument analysis: Justices seem primed to find constitutional limits on the detention of immigrants

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard reargument in Jennings v. Rodriguez, a class-action constitutional challenge to a variety of provisions of the immigration laws allowing for immigrant detention. After the oral argument last term, the court asked for further briefing on the constitutionality of the detention of immigrants. With the Trump administration promising to increase the use of detention as a form of immigration enforcement, the case has taken on increasing practical significance since the court first decided to review the case in June of 2016.

As discussed in my preview of the argument, two Supreme Court cases at the dawn of the new millennium offered contrasting approaches to the review of decisions of the U.S. government to detain immigrants. In 2001, in Zadvydas v. Davis, the Supreme Court interpreted an immigration statute to require judicial review of a detention decision because “to permit[] indefinite detention of an alien would cause a serious constitutional problem.” Just two years later, the court in Demore v. Kim invoked the “plenary power” doctrine – something exceptional to immigration law and inconsistent with modern constitutional law – to immunize from review a provision of the immigration statute requiring detention of immigrants awaiting removal based on a crime.

During the oral argument last term, the justices focused on two very different aspects of the case. On the one hand, as even the government seemed to concede, indefinite detention without a hearing is difficult to justify as a matter of constitutional law. At the same time, however, some justices worried that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had acted more like a legislature than a court in fashioning an injunction requiring bond hearings every six months. The reargument yesterday focused on similar questions, although several justices expressed alarm at the U.S. government’s claim that indefinite detention of immigrants is constitutional.

Deputy Solicitor General Malcom Stewart began for the United States by “stress[ing] the breadth of Congress’s constitutional authority to establish the rules under which aliens will be allowed to enter and remain in the United States.” Focusing first on noncitizens seeking to enter the U.S., he characterized the respondents’ claim as seeking “a constitutional right to be released into this country” during the pendency of their removal proceedings.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quickly took a poke at the government’s case, noting that someone with a credible fear of persecution who is applying for asylum might be able to gain parole into the United States. Justice Sonia Sotomayor got to the crux of the case in short order: “[W]hat other area of law have we permitted a government agent on his or her own, without a neutral party looking at that decision, to detain someone indefinitely?”

Stewart had no response except to say, paraphrasing language in the Cold War case United States ex rel. Knauff v. Shaughnessy, that for “aliens arriving at our shores … , whatever Congress chooses to give is due process.” Sotomayor’s incredulous response was blunt: “[T]hat’s lawlessness.”

Rejecting Stewart’s claim that the only alternatives for arriving immigrants are detention or release, Ginsburg pointed out that “there is something in between,” and that monitoring devices could be used to keep track of an immigrant released on bond. In response, Stewart invoked Demore v. Kim, and said that due process does not require Congress to use the least restrictive means with respect to detention of immigrants.

Justice Stephen Breyer kept Stewart on the ropes by pointing out the oddity of not giving bond hearings to noncitizens when they are given to “triple ax murderers.” Justice Elena Kagan seemed to agree that the detention statute should be read to permit a hearing and possible release.

Stewart then returned to defending the plenary-power doctrine and its Constitution-free-zone for noncitizens seeking admission into the United States. In response to a question from Kagan, he admitted that his argument was premised on the claim that people at the border “have no constitutional rights at all.” Armed with hypotheticals like the former law professor she is, Kagan asked whether the government could torture arriving immigrants or subject them to forced labor. Stewart agreed that such treatment would be unconstitutional, but then had a hard time explaining why indefinite detention does not also violate the Constitution.

After getting Stewart to agree that “detention violates due process, if there is an unreasonable delay in that detention,” Justice Anthony Kennedy asked whether a six-month rule for a hearing, which the 9th Circuit had adopted, might be appropriate. Along similar lines, Kagan suggested that, for immigrants with ties to the country, years in detention would be problematic. Stewart persisted in his position that years of detention without a bond hearing would be permissible. Kennedy seemed troubled by the apparent inconsistency between Stewart’s admission that unreasonably prolonged detention could violate due process and his insistence that arriving immigrants lack constitutional rights.

A former Supreme Court advocate, Chief Justice John Roberts asked Stewart pointedly about a statement in the government’s supplemental reply brief that 14 months without a hearing would cause constitutional problems, noting that it “sounds close to a concession.”

Justice Samuel Alito inquired about the appropriate remedy if there was a constitutional violation, suggesting that rather than adopting a bright-line rule, the court could employ a multi-factored approach like that used in assessing constitutional speedy-trial claims.

Next up was Ahilan Arulanantham of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, who argued the case for the class of immigrants. He stated at the outset that there are limits on the government’s power to detain immigrants, which he said were based in longstanding case law. Ginsburg quickly asked about the 9th Circuit’s requirement of a bond hearing every six months, noting that criminal defendants receive an initial bail hearing, with no more required under the Constitution.

Kagan seemed to read Demore v. Kim as allowing for detention, but only for a matter of months. Arulanantham explained that the length of detention of the class members was much longer, in part because, unlike the detainee in Demore, they are opposing their removals and seek to remain in the United States. He emphasized that a significant component of the class was seeking cancellation of removal, which allows successful applicants to remain as lawful permanent residents.

Justice Neil Gorsuch raised some jurisdictional questions based on provisions of the immigration statute (8 U.S.C. §§ 1252(b)(9), (f)(1)) that limit the courts’ jurisdiction in immigration cases. Arulanantham said that the government concedes that Section (b)(9), which allows for review of a final removal order, does not apply to detention claims, and that the government had waived any jurisdictional objection based on Section (f)(1). Gorsuch seemed satisfied with these explanations.

Returning to Ginsburg’s earlier question about the 9th Circuit’s requirement that a bond hearing be conducted every six months, Arulanantham defended the rule, noting that “this Court has never authorized detention without a hearing before a neutral decision-maker, outside of national security, beyond six months.” Alito pushed back, asking, “Where does it say six months in the Constitution? Why is it six? Why isn’t it seven? Why isn’t it five? Why isn’t it eight?”

Roberts acknowledged that the constitutional concerns increase with the length of a detention, but still asked Arulanatham to justify that specific time limit. Arulanantham responded by citing government statistics showing that 90 percent of all detention cases under mandatory detention finish in less than six months. Roberts wondered whether habeas or other relief might be a possibility. Returning to this question later, Arulanantham offered statistics showing that final adjudication of a habeas petition takes 19 months in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit and 14 months in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

Roberts also suggested that some of the immigrants were in detention for lengthier periods because they were preparing their cases. Pushing back, Arulanantham said in effect that an immigrant should not be penalized for seeking relief. He emphasized that the fact that an immigrant is pursuing relief does not make the person a flight risk.

Alito asked why an immediate bond hearing, as is the rule in criminal cases, was not required. Arulanantham noted that the Supreme Court had rejected that possibility in Demore. Late in the argument, Gorsuch asked about a possible remand to the 9th Circuit to decide first on constitutionality. Arulanantham admitted that could be a possibility but asked what would be gained.

As the reargument made clear, this case raises some fascinating constitutional questions, which now are squarely before the court. The justices seemed primed to find constitutional limits on the detention of immigrants. They seemed less troubled than they had been in the first argument by the six-month period for bond hearings established by the 9th Circuit, with the discussion about the reasonableness of the six-month period seeming to assuage their concerns.

Ultimately, this case offers the Supreme Court the opportunity to address the modern vitality of the plenary-power doctrine and finally decide whether, and if so how, the Constitution applies to arriving aliens. We will likely have to wait a few months longer to find out how the justices resolve that issue, which has significant implications in the immigration-law arena.

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