Immigration in the Supreme Court, 2009-13: A New Era of Immigration Law Unexceptionalism

4 Pages Posted: 16 Aug 2014  

Kevin R. Johnson

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: August 14, 2014

Abstract

With appropriate caution necessitated by the lessons of recent history, this Article posits that the Supreme Court’s contemporary immigration decisions suggest that the plenary power doctrine, the foundation of immigration exceptionalism, is again headed toward its ultimate demise. To test that thesis, this Article carefully scrutinizes the Supreme Court’s immigration decisions, as well as some other actions, such as certiorari denials in significant immigration cases, from 2009 to the present. This period coincides with the first five years of the Obama presidency, which has been a time during which the Executive Branch has seldomly relied on the plenary power doctrine in arguments to the Court.

The review of Supreme Court decisions reveals that, even though the Court now reviews considerably fewer cases than it once did, immigration matters regularly comprise a bread-and-butter part of its docket. Indeed the Court decided five immigration-related merits cases in one Term, an extraordinarily large number for a specialty substantive area of law. The fact that the Court frequently exercises its discretion to accept immigration cases for review suggests that the Justices – like the nation as a whole – consider immigration to be an important, at times contentious, national issue worthy of attention, raising many questions that go to the core of the modern administrative state. In light of the controversy surrounding some of the cases that have come before it, most notably the much-publicized constitutional challenge to Arizona’s SB 1070 and state and local efforts to push the federal government to more vigorously enforce the U.S. immigration laws, the Court could hardly help but be aware of that plain and simple truth.

What is perhaps most noteworthy from the review of immigration decisions of the Supreme Court of the last five Terms is that a conservative Court characterized as ideologically driven by some observers consistently has not taken an extreme approach to immigration law and its enforcement. The Roberts Court’s body of immigration decisions indeed is firmly and comfortably within the jurisprudential mainstream of its decisions in other areas of substantive law. The Court has applied ordinary, standard, and routine legal doctrines for the most part in ordinary, standard, and routine ways.

Analyzing the body of immigration decisions of the Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts in the 2009-13 Terms, this Article concludes that the Court in effect has to a large extent continued to bring U.S. immigration law into the legal mainstream. It has interpreted statutes to avoid constitutional questions and avoided invoking the plenary power doctrine to shield vulnerable statutes from judicial review. Although not yet eliminating the doctrine, the Court has slowly but surely moved away from anything that might reasonably be characterized as immigration exceptionalism. The undeniable trend in the Court’s immigration jurisprudence is entirely consistent with its efforts over more than a decade to, whenever possible, interpret the immigration laws to avoid deciding serious constitutional questions, and find creative ways to ensure judicial review of removal orders in the face of stringent congressional restrictions that some might reasonably read as purporting to wholly eliminate judicial review.

In applying the U.S. immigration laws, both conservative and liberal Supreme Court Justices look first to the text of the Immigration and Nationality Act and spend considerable time debating the proper interpretation of the (often complex) statutory provision in question. In addition, the Justices occasionally differ about the application of conventional legal doctrines to immigration cases, but rarely debate whether generally applicable doctrines should apply to immigration cases.

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Kevin R., Immigration in the Supreme Court, 2009-13: A New Era of Immigration Law Unexceptionalism (August 14, 2014). Oklahoma Law Review, Forthcoming; UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 388. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2480570

Kevin R. Johnson (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
400 Mrak Hall Drive
Davis, CA 95616-5201
United States
530 752 0243 (Phone)
530 752 7279 (Fax)

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