Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch cast a surprise vote in a decision released Tuesday favoring an immigrant fighting deportation, siding with the US Supreme Court's left-leaning wing.
The court said the part of the law in question is too vague to be enforced.
The ruling was a victory for James Garcia Dimaya, whose two burglary convictions were considered violent crimes under the statute - despite not having involved violence. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that the term "aggravated felony" under the Immigration and Nationality Act was too vague. The appeals court based its ruling on a 2015 Supreme Court decision that struck down a similarly worded part of another federal law that imposes longer prison sentences on repeat criminals. It was a defeat for the Justice Department, which had defended the law under both the Trump and Obama administrations. Most of those focus on ousting illegal immigrants who never had permission to be in the USA, while Tuesday's case deals with legal permanent residents who committed crimes while here, and whether those are serious enough to deserve automatic deportation.
James Garcia Dimaya is a lawful resident who came to the USA from the Philippines at age 13. In 2007 and 2009, he pleaded no contest to charges of residential burglary in California and an immigration judge determined that Dimaya was removable from the U.S. because of his two state court convictions. The government argued among other things that he could be removed from the country because his convictions qualified as crimes of violence that allowed his removal under immigration law.
The case was carried over from the high court's 2016 term, when the justices presumably deadlocked 4-4 following Justice Antonin Scalia's death and before Gorsuch was confirmed 14 months later. And this week Gorsuch joined the court's more liberal justices to deliver a majority in finding the clause too vague.
The case is Sessions v. Dimaya, 15-1498.