Vagueness and Violence: Sessions v. Dimaya

Dina Rosin (CMC ’20)

On October 2, 2017, Sessions v. Dimaya was argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. The case involves the rights of non-citizens to invoke the Vagueness Doctrine to challenge immigration policy within the U.S. court system. The decision of the Supreme Court will help determine what constitutional rights are afforded to legal non-citizens residing within the United States. The United States uses criminal removal grounds to deport hundreds of thousands of non-citizens annually from the United States. A non-citizen, including lawful permanent residents (those with a green card or another legitimate status), who is convicted of a “crime of violence,” is subject to mandatory deportation, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.  This case has the potential to influence the ways in which non-citizens can challenge U.S. law, especially those regarding immigration, in the Trump-era and beyond.

The petitioner in the case, James Garcia Dimaya, is legally permanently residing in the United States since immigrating from the Philippines in 1992. In 2007 and 2009, Dimaya was convicted of nonviolent burglaries and was immediately subject to mandatory removal. The wording of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 did not give a clear definition of a “crime of violence” within the statute. Therefore, despite the fact that the felony committed was nonviolent, the court ruled that he had committed a crime of violence, which led to his deportation. Dimaya appealed his mandatory removal, arguing that his crime was a nonviolent offense, and, therefore, did not justify his deportation. This case was heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2015 and the court granted Dimaya’s petition for review. The court reaffirmed that “a non-citizen may bring a void for vagueness challenge.” Furthermore, the majority opinion held that the wording of a “crime of violence” is “unconstitutionally vague,” and “suffers from…indeterminacy” due to the wording of the statute.

Drawing from the due process clauses in the fifth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, it is possible for a statute to be considered void if its language is overly vague, and therefore difficult for an average citizen to understand. This is referred to as the Vagueness Doctrine. In this case being brought to the Supreme Court, Dimaya is arguing that the wording of a “crime of violence” is too vague and that his nonviolent burglary should not be considered grounds for deportation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be arguing on behalf of the U.S. Government, upholding the current definition of a “crime of violence.” By promoting this largely encompassing definition of “crime of violence,” the federal government can potentially more readily and easily deport non-citizens. This will allow the Trump administration more leniency making determinations on cases on immigration.

The Supreme Court heard arguments for the case in January 2017, however, there were only eight justices on the bench, and the case was rescheduled for further arguments in October 2017. If the Court had made a decision in January 2017, it would have likely been split as there were only eight justices on the bench. Now, with the newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch as the ninth member of the court, the court will have to reach a decision. Gorsuch may vote with the Conservatives on the bench in favor of the current definition; however, it has yet to be seen how Gorsuch will weigh in on topics of immigration and the rights of non-citizens within the U.S. legal system.

Sessions v. Dimaya will determine whether a “crime of violence” is clear enough language for an average person to comprehend. However, the arguably larger implication is the determination of if non-citizens have the ability, or, right, to challenge laws for vagueness within the United States court system. This is especially relevant as policies of the Trump administration seem to suggest that the federal government will begin increasing deportation efforts. This can be seen with the repeal of Obama-era DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which leaves nearly one million people more susceptible to deportation. Ultimately, Sessions v. Dimaya will have a lasting impact in terms of how much power non-citizens have to question the United States court system.

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