WASHINGTON A divided U.S. Supreme Court
struggled on Wednesday with how to resolve a dispute over
whether immigrants detained by the U.S. government for more than
six months while deportation proceedings take place should be
able to seek their release.
The case takes on additional importance with the expectation
that President-elect Donald Trump will ramp up immigration
enforcement, placing more people in detention awaiting
deportation, when he takes office on Jan. 20, as he pledged
during his election campaign.
During a one-hour argument, the court's four liberals
appeared to support requiring that immigrants held more than six
months be automatically eligible for hearings in which they
could argue for their freedom while their deportation cases
unfold. Conservative justices were skeptical.
The shorthanded court could be heading toward another 4-4
deadlock, divided along ideological lines.
A 4-4 split would leave in place an October 2015 ruling by
the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that
upheld a lower-court injunction requiring a hearing after six
months of detention. The justices potentially could issue a
narrow decision sending the case back to lower courts without
resolving the question of whether hearings are required.
The Obama administration, which asked the justices to decide
the case, has said hearings can be permitted in certain
instances but opposed a blanket rule requiring them.
The long-running class action litigation brought by the
American Civil Liberties Union includes some immigrants who were
held at the border when seeking illegal entry into the United
States and others, including legal permanent residents, who have
been convicted of crimes.
The case also could affect long-term U.S. residents who
entered the country illegally.
Liberal justices asserted that hearings should be required
in order to meet the U.S. Constitution's promise of due process.
"You can't just lock people up without any finding of
dangerousness, without any finding of flight risk, for an
indefinite period of time, and not run into due process," said
Justice Elena Kagan
"We are in an upended world if we think 14 months or 19
months is a reasonable time to detain a person," added Justice
Conservatives including Chief Justice John Roberts said the
court had been asked to decide only whether the immigration laws
in question required the hearings and not whether there was a
potential constitutional violation. The case would have to be
litigated further in lower courts for that issue to reach the
justices, Roberts said.
The lead plaintiff is Alejandro Rodriguez, a legal immigrant
from Mexico who was working as a dental assistant when he was
detained for three years without a hearing. Rodriguez was placed
in removal proceedings based on prior convictions for drug
possession and joyriding. Although he was released eventually,
the case brought on his behalf continued.