55 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2020
Date Written: November 1, 2020
The categorical approach, which is a method federal courts use to ‘categorize’ which state law criminal convictions can trigger federal sanctions, is one of the most impactful yet misunderstood legal doctrines in criminal and immigration law. For thousands of criminal offenders, the categorical approach determines whether a previous state law conviction—as defined by the legal elements of the crime—sufficiently matches the elements of the federal crime counterpart that justifies imposing harsh federal sentencing enhancements or even deportation for noncitizens. One of the normative goals courts have invoked to uphold this elements-based categorical approach is that it produces nationwide uniformity. Ironically, however, the categorical approach produces the opposite. By examining the categorical approach in the criminal sentencing and immigration contexts, this Article shows that relying on state criminal elements has produced nonuniformity due to the variations of state law.
This Article examines and proposes remedies for the categorical approach’s nonuniformity problem. Although the Supreme Court has itself attempted to resolve this problem by deciding nearly twenty cases in the past twelve years with even more cases on its current docket, nonuniformity prevails. And while scholars are increasingly weighing in, this Article contributes to the literature by applying different theories of uniformity that juxtaposes the ideals of nationwide uniformity with the potential benefits of nonuniformity. This novel analysis supports at least two paths forward. First, if uniformity is to be prioritized, the elements-based categorical approach must be fundamentally redesigned to properly accomplish this goal. But given the difficulty of achieving genuine nationwide uniformity, keeping the elements-based categorical approach may be justified, albeit under a different theoretical framework that acknowledges the benefits of nonuniformity among states within a federal system of government.
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