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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

SCOTUS Symposium: A departmentalist take on Morales-Santana

Richard's post about the Morales-Santana Court conflating judgment and precedent prompts a question: What if Congress and the Executive decide, in a fit of departmentalism, that the current differential treatment of unmarried-mother citizens is constitutionally valid? Congress refuses to amend the statute (or the President vetoes the proposed amendment) and the Executive continues removing people situated as is Morales-Santana by treating them as non-citizens, even while continuing to treat a comparable child of an unmarried-mother citizen as a citizen.

There is no judgment or order compelling Congress to change the law, something a court could not do in any event. There is no judgment compelling the executive to treat anyone other than Morales-Santana a certain way or declaring the rights of anyone other than Morales-Santana. A court cannot, through a declaratory judgment, adjudicate the rights of non-parties (I agree with Richard that this might be what the majority saw itself as doing). Departmentalism does not result in a constitutional stalemate (or devolves into judicial supremacy in practice) because at some point the judiciary has a final card in the form of a judgment in a particular case as to a particular person that government must follow on pain of contempt and that makes the Court's constitutional vision applicable to a person. The problem in this case, and in the cases likely to follow from it, is getting to that enforceable judgment that benefits some person in a way adverse to the government.

So let's play this out:

X is the child of  unmarried-father citizen who lived in the US for 4 years and 364 days, 1 year and 364 days after age 14, where the parents. The government seeks to remove. X cannot argue that removal is prohibited by a court order, because there is no judgment affecting him in place. So he goes into the BIA process, arguing that removing him as a non-citizen violates equal protection because unmarried-mother citizens (and their children) continue to be treated differently.  The BIA accepts his argument, following Morales-Santana (are BIA proceedings subject to the same rules of precedent as lower federal courts?). Or the BIA rejects his claim, but the court of appeals reverses, as it is unquestionably bound by Morales-Santana to hold that the differential treatment is unconstitutional. But now we are in the same place we are this morning--the statutory scheme is unconstitutional, but the court of appeals will be similarly reluctant to remedy by leveling up, meaning X remains subject to § 1409(a) (the 5/2 residency rule) and remains removable. And Congress and the executive remain free to ignore the precedential piece of the decision in X v. Sessions when it then seeks to remove Y, another child of an unmarried-father citizen.

How do we get out of this loop? One possibility is Mark Tushnet's suggestion that the court could/did order the government to exercise its discretion not to remove because the basis for removal was unconstitutional. If the government starts losing these cases and being unable to remove, it will amend the statute or change its enforcement mechanisms. A second possibility is that at some point the Court, tired of congressional or executive intransigence, remedies the violation in X's case by leveling up, requiring the government to subject X to the one-year exception and prohibiting removal. That will get Congress and the executive moving, to the extent they do not want one year to be the residency requirement for everyone.

This is all moot, because the government has agreed to level down for everyone going forward. But it shows the extent to which judicial supremacy has carried the day. The court can get away with an "order" such as the one in Morales-Santana because it knows that Congress and the executive will follow its declarations of constitutional law.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 13, 2017 at 10:23 AM in 2016-17 End of Term, Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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