WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Supreme Court on Wednesday wrestled with another immigration dispute involving the Trump administration that focused on the U.S. government’s ability to detain people awaiting deportation after they complete prison sentences for criminal convictions.
FILE PHOTO: A police officer walks by columns on first day with newly sworn in Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the court at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo
The nine justices, including the court’s newest member Brett Kavanaugh, heard an hour of arguments in the administration’s appeal of a lower court ruling in favor of immigrants that the government has said undermines its ability to deport immigrants who have committed crimes.
The case’s outcome could hinge on the two justices President Donald Trump has appointed to the court: conservatives Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. Kavanaugh asked questions of lawyers from both sides, at one point appearing skeptical toward arguments made by immigration advocates who are opposing the Trump administration. There is the possibility of a compromise ruling.
The plaintiffs include two legal U.S. residents involved in separate lawsuits filed in 2013, a Cambodian immigrant named Mony Preap convicted of marijuana possession and a Palestinian immigrant named Bassam Yusuf Khoury convicted of attempting to manufacture a controlled substance.
Trump’s administration has taken a hard line toward immigration. While some of the court’s five conservatives seemed sympathetic to the administration, the court’s liberal justices appeared to lean toward the plaintiffs.
The case came before the court on Kavanaugh’s second day on the bench following his Senate confirmation on Saturday after a fierce political fight.
Under federal immigration law, immigrants who are convicted of certain offenses are subject to mandatory detention during their deportation process. They can be held indefinitely without a bond hearing after completing their criminal sentences.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2016 that convicted immigrants who are not immediately detained by immigration authorities after finishing their sentences cannot later be placed into indefinite detention awaiting possible deportation.
The 9th Circuit decided that immigrants who were later detained after completing their prison time – sometimes years later – could seek bond hearings to argue for their release.
In another case, the justices in February curbed the ability of immigrants held in long-term detention during deportation proceedings to argue for their release, overturning another 9th Circuit ruling.
A majority of justices, including Gorsuch, appeared concerned about immigrants being detained without a hearing years after they committed criminal offenses. But the sticking point appeared to be how to define what would be a reasonable period of time for immigration agents to detain a person whose criminal sentence is completed.
In April, Gorsuch joined with the court’s four liberals in a 5-4 ruling in another immigration case that could hinder the Trump administration’s ability to step up the removal of immigrants with criminal records.
The law at issue in Wednesday’s case states that the government can detain convicted immigrants “when the alien is released” from criminal detention. Civil rights lawyers for two groups of plaintiffs argued that the language of the law shows that it applies only immediately after immigrants are released. The administration said the government should have the power to detain such immigrants at any time.
Cecilia Wang, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing the immigrants, said that the detention should occur within 24 hours. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts questioned such a tight deadline.
“I don’t know what is reasonable here. A month?” Roberts asked.
Kavanaugh generally seemed sympathetic to the government’s argument, saying the court should be wary of “superimposing a time limit” on the law Congress wrote. But he later asked the administration’s lawyer, Zachary Tripp, what the government considered to be a reasonable amount of time. Tripp said that any time limit would be “profoundly problematic.”
With the administration’s intensified immigration enforcement, growing numbers of people likely will be detained awaiting deportation. The administration also is locked in a fight with so-called sanctuary states and cities that limit cooperation with efforts by federal authorities to detain immigrants.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham