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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

SCOTUS Symposium: Thoughts on Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions

The Supreme Court issued four opinions today.  One of those opinions, Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, involves what seems like a relatively technical statutory interpretation question.  But behind this dry opinion lurk difficult and important issues about federalism and the powers of Congress---issues that have made a number of recent appearances in front of the Supreme Court and that we should expect to see one more time this Term in Sessions v. Dimaya.

Esquivel-Quintana involves a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that identifies a conviction for an “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor” as grounds for mandatory removal from the United States.  Petitioner had been convicted under a California statute that prohibits sexual intercourse with a minor who is more than three years younger than the perpetrator.  The law defines a minor as any person under 18.  Petitioner argued that this conviction should not make him eligible for mandatory removal because it does not fall within the “generic federal definition” of sexual abuse of a minor, which requires that the victim be younger than 16.  The unanimous Supreme Court agreed that Petitioner was not subject to mandatory removal, not because his victim was older than 16, but because the California statute would permit a conviction in circumstances even when the victim was 17.

Now, you might be asking yourself “what is a ‘generic federal definition’ of a crime, and where do you find such a definition?”  Those are excellent questions.  And the answers are less than satisfying.  There is no section of the U.S. Code where you can find “generic federal definitions” of crimes.  Instead, the generic definitions are common-law creatures that the courts have created in order to deal with the fact that Congress has written a number of statutes that rely on state-court convictions.  And because states define crimes differently, Congress does not specify which specific state criminal statutes trigger its federal laws.  Nor does Congress define the criminal conduct or elements that trigger the federal laws.  Instead it uses phrases like “sexual abuse of a minor,” leaving it to federal prosecutors and federal courts to sort out which state court convictions qualify and which convictions do not.  And, as you might imagine, sorting these things out is far from easy.  It leads to a lot of circuit splits, and we end up with a number of decisions from the Supreme Court on these types of issues every year.

If you take a step back and think about why Congress is writing such imprecise statutes, you’ll realize that it is because Congress is trying to expand the reach of its laws to capture information from state courts.  In recent decades, the federal criminal law has expanded.  The federal government has sought to regulate not only those people who commit federal crimes, but also those who are convicted of state crimes.  Federal law seeks to deport people who have committed state crimes, it prohibits people from possessing firearms based on state court convictions, and it uses those convictions to drastically increase punishment for people who are convicted of federal crimes.  As the federal government has increased its criminal law role, it has leaned heavily on state court convictions.  But states have written very different criminal laws.  These differences are traceable to the idea that each state faces different problems and has different priorities.  Congress’s decision to try to use those state laws as the scaffold for a nation-wide criminal law not only raises questions whether Congress is usurping the role of the states in shaping criminal law, but it also ignores the messy reality of state law differences.

These laws also highlight the limits of Congress’s power.  It is not easy for Congress to draft and enact legislation.  So it would be next to impossible for Congress to list all of the specific state statutes that it would want to trigger a federal law, and then to continuously pass legislation to update that list as states change their own laws.  But Congress’s decision to use imprecise phrases like “sexual abuse of a minor” raises its own problems.  Two Terms ago, in Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court held that a portion of one of these federal laws was unconstitutionally vague.  A vagueness challenge to a similar law is pending before the Court right now in Sessions v. Dimaya

To be clear, the Supreme Court is not always hostile to federal laws that incorporate state court convictions.  And it often rules for the government in those cases even when a reasonable reading supports a defendant-petitioner.  But at least today we can add Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions to the list of cases in which the courts have pushed back against these federal laws.

Posted by Carissa Byrne Hessick on May 30, 2017 at 11:57 AM in 2016-17 End of Term, Carissa Byrne Hessick, Criminal Law | Permalink

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Posted by: Criminal Lawyers | Jun 10, 2017 1:44:05 AM

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