Divided U.S. Supreme Court limits review of immigration rulings

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The U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, U.S., May 12, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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  • Ruling bars green card applicants from appealing denials
  • Decision resolves longstanding split among appeals courts
  • Dissent says agencies' mistakes must be reviewable

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that federal courts cannot review factual determinations made by immigration judges in certain deportation cases, resolving a sharp split among appeals courts.

The justices in a 5-4 ruling said federal immigration law precludes court review of decisions in which immigration judges decline to exercise their discretion to grant protection from deportation, such as by issuing green cards, even when a judge has arguably made a glaring error.

Immigration courts are part of the U.S. Department of Justice, and are completely separate from federal courts.

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The ruling will bar thousands of people whose applications for green cards and other legal protections are denied each year from appealing those decisions, according to advocacy groups and former immigration judges who filed briefs in the case.

The majority rejected claims by Indian citizen Pankajkumar Patel that courts are only barred from reviewing final decisions on deportation, and not threshold determinations about whether individuals are eligible for relief.

The government had argued that judges' factual findings are reviewable in court when they do not require the use of discretion, but the court on Monday said that reading was also too broad.

A lawyer for Patel did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did the Department of Justice.

Patel entered the U.S. illegally in the 1990s, according to filings in the case, and applied for a green card in 2007. An immigration judge and the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals had found that Patel was not eligible to receive a green card because he had falsely stated on a Georgia driver's license application that he was a U.S. citizen.

Patel appealed, claiming he mistakenly checked off the wrong box and that the judge had no basis to conclude that he had purposely misrepresented himself as a citizen since Georgia does not require an individual to be a U.S. citizen in order to receive a driver's license.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020 said it lacked jurisdiction to review the judge's factual findings, deepening a circuit split that had existed for nearly two decades.

The Supreme Court on Monday affirmed, agreeing with lawyers from Consovoy McCarthy who were appointed by the court to advocate for a strict bar on judicial review.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the majority that Congress had worded federal immigration law broadly to preclude review of any judgment made during the process of deciding green card applications.

Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented, joined by the court's three liberal justices. Gorsuch said judicial review is necessary to correct mistakes made by government agencies, particularly when an individual's ability to remain in the U.S. is at stake.

"Today’s majority acts on its own to shield the government from the embarrassment of having to correct even its most obvious errors," Gorsuch wrote.

The case is Patel v. Garland, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 20-979.

For Patel: Ira Kurzban of Kurzban Kurzban Tetzeli & Pratt

For the government: Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar

Court-appointed amicus: Taylor Meehan of Consovoy McCarthy

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.