The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with an illegal immigrant from Guatemala fighting his deportation by immigration authorities in a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch that “focused on a single word,” ABC News reports.
Agusto Niz-Chavez brought the case after the government initiated deportation proceedings against him in 2013, about eight years after he first crossed the border into the U.S. in 2005. The government sent two notices, the first alerting him to the charges against him and the second giving the date and time of his court appointment.
Federal law states that an immigrant can only appeal a removal order if they’ve been in the U.S. for 10 years, and the law says that the delivery of a notice to appear pauses the clock, but Niz-Chavez claimed that the multiple notices did not qualify as the single notice that the law requires, an argument that six of the court’s justices agreed with. The majority ruled on Thursday that the Department of Justice broke federal law when it failed to issue a single “notice to appear” that provided details about the charges and a date to appear in court.
“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,” wrote Gorsuch, who was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Amy Coney Barrett.
“Someone who agrees to buy ‘a car’ would hardly expect to receive the chassis today, wheels next week, and an engine to follow,” the justice continued.
“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. In this case, the law’s terms ensure that, when the federal government seeks a procedural advantage against an individual, it will at least supply him with a single and reasonably comprehensive statement of the nature of the proceedings against him. If men must turn square corners when they deal with the government, it cannot be too much to expect the government to turn square corners when it deals with them,” he added.
ABC notes that Gorsuch cites that “square corners” fairness doctrine that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes established in 1920.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh in dissenting, with Kavanaugh writing the minority opinion.
“The Court today agrees with Niz-Chavez that, in order to stop the 10-year clock, the Government must provide written notice in one document, not two. I find the Court’s conclusion rather perplexing as a matter of statutory interpretation and common sense. I therefore respectfully dissent,” he wrote.
Cornell University’s Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law, told Reuters that the ruling will change how the Department of Homeland Security operates and will slow immigration proceedings against a number of people. He also noted that for a lot of people, such as Niz-Chavez, this ruling provides “a second chance to try to prove that they qualify for cancellation of removal and other forms of relief.”