Friday, March 25, 2016

Ninth Circuit Strikes Down Immigration Law Provision Making "Habitual Drunkard" a Person Lacking Good Moral Character


Judge Stephen Reinhardt

Maura Dolan for the Los Angeles Times reports on a fascinating Ninth Circuit opinion issued yesterday written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt.  In the opinion, the court relies on a previous Immigration Article of the Day -- Distilling Americans: The Legacy of Prohibition on U.S. Immigration Law by Jayesh Rathod, and strikes down as unconstitutional a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act.  The court specifically invalidated a provision of the law that made it difficult, if not impossible, for a “habitual drunkard” to obtain relief from removal.  Click here for Wall Street Journal coverage of the decision.

In a 2-1 decision, the Ninth Circuit found that the provision of the immigration law unconstitutionally equated alcoholism with bad moral character.  Judge Reinhardt wrote for the majority; Judge Miranda Du, federal district judge from the District of Nevada sitting by designation, joined the majority opinion.  

As the majority framed the question, “Is it rational for the government to find that people with chronic alcoholism are morally bad people solely because of their disease?” “The answer is no.” The majority emphasized that alcoholism has long been recognized as a medical disability. “A statute targeting people who habitually and excessively drink alcohol is, in effect, targeting individuals with chronic alcoholism,” Reinhardt wrote.

Federal immigration law allows for the cancellation of removal of a noncitizen, or to allow the person to depart voluntarily, if he or she has good moral character.  The law deems noncitizens as lacking good moral character  if they participated in genocide or torture, have been convicted of a serious felony or gambling offenses, or are "habitual drunkards."

Salomon Ledezma-Cosino, a Mexican citizen who entered the United States in 1997, was deemed an “habitual drunkard.” Medical records show he drank an average of a liter of tequila a day for 10 years.  Ledezma-Cosino also has eight children — five of them U.S. citizens — and has supported his family by working in construction.

The majority held that the federal law linking drunkenness with poor moral character violates the Equal Protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution. “The theory that alcoholics are blameworthy because they could simply try harder to recover is an old trope not supported by the medical literature,” Reinhardt wrote. “Rather, the inability to stop drinking is a function of the underlying ailment.”

Judge Richard R. Clifton dissented. He argued that simply because alcoholism is a medical condition, it does not mean the sufferer always lacks a free will or can be susceptible to a moral evaluation. 

If the government does not appeal, the ruling will permit Ledezma-Cosino once again to seek to remain in the country or at least leave voluntarily.

It is extremely rare for a court to strike down as unconstitutional a provision of the immigration laws.

Oral arguments in the case, which are interesting to listen to, can be accessed hereAttorney Nora Milner successfully represented the Petitioner.


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