Sessions v. Dimaya: The Ninth Justice Steps In


On Tuesday April 17, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled on Sessions v. Dimaya. The case was narrowly decided with 5 of the 9 justices ruling in favor of James Dimaya. “Conservative” Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the “liberal” justices (Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor) to affirm the ruling. This decision may come as a surprise to many, given that this case was a ruling on immigration law. While it is easy to imagine that a conservative-leaning judge would rule in favor of the law, it is important to understand decisions in the Supreme Court are not that clear cut. The Supreme Court’s sole purpose is to serve as a check on those bodies that initiate laws and ensure that their actions are within the scope of the United States’ Constitution. As such, when a justice like Neil Gorsuch sides with the more liberal judges, it should not come as a major shock.

The case came before the Supreme Court in the early 2016 and was first argued January of the following year; however; the Supreme Court was unable to come to a decision as they split 4-4 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. As a result, the case was re-argued in October of the same year, with newly confirmed Justice Neil Gorsuch at the bench. The case involved James Garcia Dimaya, a citizen of the Philippines, who was granted permanent status in America in 1992. Despite having permanent status in the United States, Mr. Dimaya was not a citizen, and as a result, was subject to certain provisions under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that subjected non-citizens who were convicted of “violent crimes” to deportation. This is why, when he was convicted twice for residential burglary in 2007 and 2009, the Department of Homeland Security began a deportation process for Dimaya in accordance with INA Section 238. However, a lawsuit was launched, claiming that the provision of the act was “unconstitutionally vague.” That is where the Supreme Court stepped in.

On Tuesday, the Court ruled in favor of the respondent, agreeing that the part (Section 238) of the act was not sufficiently clear and specific, and thereby violated the Constitution. Justice Gorsuch, who joined Justice Elena Kagan in writing part of the opinion, stated:

Vague laws invite arbitrary power. Before the Revolu­tion, the crime of treason in English law was so capricious construed that the mere expression of disfavored opinions could invite transportation or death…Today’s vague laws may not be as invidious, but they can invite the exercise of arbitrary power all the same—by leaving the people in the dark about what the law demands and allowing prosecutors and courts to make it up.

Justice Gorsuch’s statement shows his commitment to making his decision based on the content of the law, not his political opinion. Each time a case goes to the Supreme Court, especially a major case, it is often thought that justices will vote according to their political persuasion. However, the Supreme Court derives its power entirely from its legitimacy as an institution. Justices on the court serve for life, and the only check on them is congressional impeachment, which is a difficult and rare process. In order to enforce their rulings, they need compliance from both the executive and the legislative branch. The best way to do so is to ensure that their rulings are not motivated by personal biases. That is why, when making these decisions, the members of the court have to uphold its integrity by ruling based on legal standards and not political ones.

During the oral argument for Gill v. Whitford, current Chief Justice John Roberts reflected on the importance that the Court stay politically neutral: “Well, why did the Democrats win? … It must be because the Supreme Court preferred the Democrats over the Republicans…And that is going to cause very serious harm to the status and integrity of the decisions of this court in the eyes of the county.” This quote symbolizes how justices think when they are preparing to make a decision on any given case. The members of the court take into consideration what the public will think, and make their rulings based as far away from personal bias as possible. For this reason, it comes as no surprise that Justice Gorsuch sided with the so-called liberals of the court. His ruling was not based on whether or not he liked the respondent, but rather on whether the law in question violated the Constitution.

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