Thursday, May 7, 2020

Breaking News: Supreme Court Vacates Ninth Circuit Ruling in First Amendment/Immigration Case

Today, the  Supreme Court in United States v. Sineneng-Smith  vacated and remanded a case to the Ninth Circuit in which it had struck down on First Amendment grounds a federal law that makes it a crime to encourage or cause illegal immigration for financial gain.  The high Court found that the Ninth Circuit had impermissibly reshaped the issues in the case.In an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Court unanimously rejected the Ninth Circuit's reasoning in an opinion written by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, and joined by Judges Marsha S. Berzon and Andrew D. Hurwitz.

As Jack Chin described the issue in  the case,

"Put simply, the issue is this. 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) imposes criminal penalties on any person who “encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence in is or will be in violation of law.” Is this, as the government argues with the support of a single amicus brief, a narrow provision prohibiting criminal solicitation and aiding and abetting? Or is it, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found and a range of amici argue, a constitutionally overbroad statute criminalizing a wide range of protected expression, including political speech, attorney representation, charitable and religious counseling, support and outreach, and grandmothers urging their foreign-born grandchildren not to leave them?"

The Court was not gentle in rejecting the Ninth Circuit's approach to the issues in the case. Consider the concluding sentence:  ". . . {W]e vacate the Ninth Circuit’s judgment and remand the case for reconsideration shorn of the overbreadth inquiry interjected by the appellate panel and bearing a fair resemblance to the case shaped by the parties." (bold added).

Here is the syllabus to the opinion:

Respondent Evelyn Sineneng-Smith operated an immigration consulting firm in San Jose, California. She assisted clients working without authorization in the United States to file applications for a labor certification program that once provided a path for aliens to adjust to lawful permanent resident status. Sineneng-Smith knew that her clients could not meet the long-passed statutory application-filing deadline, but she nonetheless charged each client over $6,000, netting more than $3.3 million.

Sineneng-Smith was indicted for multiple violations of 8 U. S. C. §1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) and (B)(i). Those provisions make it a federal felony to “encourag[e] or induc[e] an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law,” §1324(a)(1)(A)(iv), and impose an enhanced penalty if the crime is “done for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain,” §1324(a)(1)(B)(i). In the District Court, she urged that the provisions did not cover her conduct, and if they did, they violated the Petition and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment as applied.

The District Court rejected her arguments and she was convicted, as relevant here, on two counts under §1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) and (B)(i). Sineneng-Smith essentially repeated the same arguments on appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Again she asserted a right under the First Amendment to file administrative applications on her clients’ behalf, and she argued that the statute could not constitutionally be applied to her conduct. Instead of adjudicating the case presented by the parties, however, the court named three amici and invited them to brief and argue issues framed by the panel, including a question never raised by Sineneng-Smith: Whether the statute is overbroad under the First Amendment. In accord with the amici’s arguments, the Ninth Circuit held that §1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) is unconstitutionally overbroad.

Held: The Ninth Circuit panel’s drastic departure from the principle of party presentation constituted an abuse of discretion.
The Nation’s adversarial adjudication system follows the principle of party presentation. Greenlaw v. United States, 554 U. S. 237, 243.

“In both civil and criminal cases, . . . we rely on the parties to frame the issues for decision and assign to courts the role of neutral arbiter of matters the parties present.” Id., at 243.

That principle forecloses the controlling role the Ninth Circuit took on in this case. No extraordinary circumstances justified the panel’s takeover of the appeal. Sineneng-Smith, represented by competent counsel, had raised a vagueness argument and First Amendment arguments homing in on her own conduct, not that of others. Electing not to address the party-presented controversy, the panel projected that §1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) might cover a wide swath of protected speech, including abstract advocacy and legal advice. It did so even though Sineneng-Smith’s counsel had presented a contrary theory of the case in her briefs and before the District Court. A court is not hidebound by counsel’s precise arguments, but the Ninth Circuit’s radical transformation of this case goes well beyond the pale. On remand, the case is to be reconsidered shorn of the overbreadth inquiry interjected by the appellate panel and bearing a fair resemblance to the case shaped by the parties. Pp. 3–9.


UPDATE (May 8):  Jack Chin analyzes the opinion for SCOTUSBlog here.  His bottom line:  "The impact of the decision on the role of courts is unclear. "  In the end, I do not see the decision having much of an impact on immigration or First Amendment law.  The unanimous Court ruling will serve as a reminder to the lower courts to stay in their lane.


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