Justices hear examples of legal immigrants ousted for state felonies deemed minor under federal law.
By David G. Savage, Times Staff Writer
October 4, 2006
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court debated Tuesday whether thousands of longtime legal immigrants in the United States, including business owners and military veterans, must be deported if they have been convicted of drug possession.
At issue is how to interpret a stiff 10-year-old federal law that demands deportation for noncitizens who commit "aggravated felonies." Despite the law's focus on expelling felons and drug traffickers, the government in recent years has insisted on deporting some immigrants who pleaded guilty to possessing drugs, sometimes just small amounts of marijuana.
Although those crimes are considered minor matters under federal law, in some states they are classified as felonies. The Bush administration contends that the federal deportation law can be used in those cases.
Several justices voiced doubt about that approach during the oral argument Tuesday.
"Isn't that very strange that Congress would have wanted a reading of the statute that would turn its definition of a misdemeanor crime into an aggravated felony for purposes of the immigration laws?" asked Justice David H. Souter.
Defending the government's approach, U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler said the law as Congress wrote it "looks to state law." If a drug crime is a felony under state law, it is a felony that leads to deportation under federal law, he said.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts told the government's lawyer: "It must give you pause that your analysis is of a term — 'drug-trafficking crime' or 'illicit trafficking' — and your theory leads to the conclusion that simple possession equates with drug trafficking."
The case before the court illustrates the issue.
Jose Lopez came to the United States from Mexico in 1985 and became a legal resident. Married, the father of two children, and the owner of a taco stand and grocery store in Sioux Falls, S.D., Lopez admitted in 1997 that he had told someone how to obtain cocaine.
That would be a misdemeanor under federal law, but it was a felony under South Dakota law, resulting in up to five years in prison. Lopez served 15 months and was released.
Federal authorities then took him into custody, and he was deported to Mexico, even though he was not convicted of buying or selling the drug.
Immigrant-rights groups urged the high court to limit deportation under the federal law to those who are drug traffickers.
"Effectively, what the government is arguing is that states can banish noncitizens and can do so by enacting drug laws … to make a simple possession offense a felony," Robert A. Long, a lawyer for Lopez, told the justices. "It's highly unlikely Congress would have left that determination to the states."
Four states — Florida, Nevada, North Dakota and Oregon — make it felony to possess a small amount of marijuana, the government said.
In briefs filed to the court, immigrant-rights groups cited examples of legal immigrants who were Gulf War veterans or owners of successful restaurants and established businesses who faced deportation because they had state drug convictions.
"We think the government is mislabeling drug possession as drug trafficking. And the consequence is that it will separate thousands of American families," said Benita Jain, lawyer for the New York State Defenders Assn. She referred to cases in which people with children here were deported.
In a second argument Tuesday, a California state lawyer urged the high court to reinstate a death sentence for a man convicted in the robbery and murder of a young Central Valley woman in 1981. Under the instructions that were in use in 1983, jurors were told they could consider many reasons for sparing Fernando Belmontes from a death sentence — including "any other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime."
The jury unanimously voted a death sentence for Belmontes, and that verdict was upheld over many years by state judges, the state Supreme Court and a federal district judge.
Three years ago, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the sentence on the grounds that jurors may have been misled and confused about whether they could spare Belmontes based on evidence that he likely could live a productive life behind bars.
The Supreme Court justices were closely split on death penalty cases in the last year, and they sounded divided Tuesday as well.