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May 21, 2012
Supreme Court Action Today: Statutory Construction of Immigration Law, Court Interpreters, and Social Security Benefits
The Supreme Court issued three opinions today, all of them dealing with statutory construction issues in one form or another. The first of these is Holder v. Martinez Gutierrez (10-1542). Immigration laws allow the Attorney General to cancel the removal of an alien when he or she has held lawful permanent status (LPR) for five years and has lived in the United States for at least seven continuous years after a lawful admission. The question is whether the LPR status and residency of parents should be imputed to children. It is possible that a parent might meet that requirement while a child does not. The issue came to the Court in two consolidated cases.
Respondent Martinez Gutierrez was not given LPR status until 2003 though his father attained that status in 1991. He had illegally entered the United States with his family in 1989. He was apprehended in 2005 for smuggling undocumented aliens across the border. He sought cancellation of his removal. The Immigration Law Judge agreed that he qualified for cancellation due to his father’s status but the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) reversed. The Ninth Circuit granted a petition for review due to its own precedent imputing status to the parent in these cases.
Respondent Damien Sawyers attained LPR status in 1995 and was convicted of a drug offense in 2002. He was a few months shy of seven continuous years of residence as required under the statute. He appealed to the Ninth Circuit seeking status under his mother’s residency and the Court granted his petition for review. The BIA had disagreed with the Ninth Circuit precedent and expressly refused to follow it outside of the Ninth Circuit.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the BIA’s rejection of imputation to the parent is a permissible interpretation of the statute. The Court said that the BIA’s interpretation is reasonable even though it is not the only or best interpretation, citing Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U. S. 837 (1984). The BIA’s interpretation is consistent with the language of the statute, and it is not contradicted by the context of the statute or its legislative history. Justice Kagan delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.
The second case is Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd. (10-1472). The question it addressed concerned the award of court costs to the prevailing party for translation of documents from Japanese to English under the Court Interpreters Act. The Ninth Circuit held that Act covered the translation of documents. The Supreme Court held that it did not. The ordinary meaning of the word “interpreter” is someone who translates orally. As such, it does not include the cost of document translation. The Court examined the history of the statute and various dictionary definitions to reach its conclusion. Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Kagan. Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. She would allow the costs under a broader meaning of the term “interpret” and cites a large body of federal cases that are consistent with that position.
The final case is Astrue v. Capato (11-159). The case involves whether twins conceived via in vitro fertilization 18 months after their father’s death are eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) denied the application. The District Court affirmed on the basis that the father was a domicile of Florida and that state’s law did not allow for inheritance through intestate succession for posthumously conceived children. The Third Circuit reversed holding that the state law did not apply in qualifying for survivor’s benefits.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the SSA’s interpretation of the statute was reasonable, if not the best. Citing Chevron again the Court said the interpretation was entitled to deference. The Court examines the context and amendment history of the applicable provisions of the Social Security Act to conclude that the intestacy law of the state does apply in determining eligibility. Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. [MG]