Written by Skyler Shipp (News Writer)
On April 29th, the Supreme Court delivered an extremely interesting ruling in favor of an undocumented immigrant challenging his deportation. Not only did the decision bring together a surprising group of justices, but it hinged on a single word, “a”.
The case was brought by Niz-Chavez, who illegally entered the United States in 2005. He sought permission to stay in the US under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which allows illegal immigrants to stay in the US if they meet certain requirements, one of which is living in the US for more than ten years. The law also states that this ten-year “timer” would be paused if the person was ordered to appear in court. Chavez received his notices to appear in court in 2013, where it was ruled that he must be deported. Luckily for Niz-Chavez, there was a wording in the IIRIRA that allowed him to sue. Before the hearing, he had been sent multiple documents with the required information on the court hearing, however, as the court noted, “the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) requires the government to serve “a notice to appear” on individuals, it wishes to remove from this country.” The question before the court was whether the “a” in “a notice to appear” means that the court order must be sent in a single document in order for the 10-year clock.
By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court sided with Niz-Chavez, saying that the IIRIRA requires the court order to be contained in a single document in order for the 10-year countdown to be stopped. Yet what is even more interesting about this case is the coalition of justices that sided with Niz-Chavez. the majority contained the court’s three liberal justices, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Breyer. However, what is interesting about the case is that these liberal justices were joined by one of the court’s most conservative justices, Thomas, as well as Trump-appointees Gorsuch and Barrett. The dissent consisted of justices Kavanaugh, Roberts, and Alito.
When we look below the surface, this case isn’t as surprising as it may seem. In the majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch said that “To trigger the stop-time rule, the government must serve “a” notice containing all the information Congress has specified. To an ordinary reader—both in 1996 and today—“a” notice would seem to suggest just that: “a” single document containing the required information, not a mishmash of pieces with some assembly required.” This is in line with the legal ideology of “textualism” which says that law should always be interpreted based on the written text and not any other factor. Textualism is most often used by conservatives to limit the scope of government. The requirement of a single legal notice will give the government less flexibility in issuing court orders for illegal immigrants and will make it easier for other illegal immigrants who have had their court orders issued improperly to appeal their decisions. The three dissenting justices argued that the majority looked too far into the law, with Kavanaugh saying “I find the Court’s conclusion rather perplexing as a matter of statutory interpretation and common sense.” The ideology and reasoning behind this case and why the justices ruled the way they did are complicated, and perhaps the most straightforward summary of the majority’s opinion comes from Justice Gorsuch himself.
“At one level, today’s dispute may seem semantic, focused on a single word, a small one at that. But words are how the law constrains power.”