Justices split over question of federal court review in immigration cases

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OPINION ANALYSIS
person standing in front of the court steps

In a 5-4 decision made on Monday, the Supreme Court held that federal courts lack jurisdiction to review factual findings made by the executive branch during deportation proceedings. The ruling in Patel v. Garland means that noncitizens seeking certain forms of discretionary relief under immigration law could be left with no judicial review when the government denies such relief.

The case involved Pankajkumar Patel, who (along with his wife) entered the United States without authorization in the 1990s. He applied for “adjustment of status,” which allows a person to obtain permanent residency (i.e., a green card). Like with many forms of discretionary relief, adjustment of status involves two steps. First, the applicant must meet precise eligibility requirements under a federal statute. Second, immigration officials must exercise their discretion to grant the relief.

While his application was pending at the Department of Homeland Security, Patel filed an application to renew his Georgia driver’s license and marked the box “U.S. citizen” even though he was eligible for a driver’s license under Georgia law despite not being a U.S. citizen. He was denied adjustment and later placed in deportation proceedings before an immigration judge in the Department of Justice. He again applied for adjustment of status as a defense to removal. The immigration judge denied Patel adjustment, concluding that he intentionally marked “U.S. citizen” on his application, despite Patel’s testimony that he made a mistake and did not intend to mark the U.S. citizen box. The judge determined that the misrepresentation made Patel ineligible for adjustment and never decided the second step — the discretionary one.    

Patel sought to have a federal court review the immigration judge’s factual finding — specifically, the question of whether he intentionally or mistakenly checked the citizen box. But he ran into a problem: a provision of immigration known as the jurisdictional bar. That provision, 8 U.S.C. § 1252(a)(2)(B)(i), bars federal courts from reviewing “any judgment regarding the granting of relief” under five specific immigration remedies, including adjustment. Patel v. Garland asked the Supreme Court to clarify the scope of the jurisdictional bar.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett delivered the opinion of the court, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh. The majority held that federal courts lack jurisdiction to review facts found as part of adjustment-of-status proceedings and other discretionary-relief proceedings enumerated in Section 1252(a)(2)(B)(i).

“Federal courts have a very limited role to play in this process,” Barrett wrote. She rejected the positions of Patel and the federal government, both of whom argued that Patel’s case fell outside the jurisdictional bar. Instead, she adopted the interpretation of attorney Taylor Meehan, whom the court appointed as an amicus to argue that the jurisdictional bar applied. Meehan advocated a broad reading of “any judgment regarding the granting of relief,” including factual findings. In interpreting a neighboring statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1252(a)(2)(D) (which clarifies that nothing in subparagraph (B)(i) should “be construed as precluding review of constitutional claims or questions of law raised upon a petition for review”) and related case law, Barrett concluded that judicial review is unavailable for factual questions like the one at issue in Patel’s case.

Barrett wrote: “In contrast to amicus’ straightforward interpretation, both the Government’s and Patel’s arguments read like elaborate efforts to avoid the most natural meaning of the text.” She disagreed with the government’s reading of the text and application of Kucana v. Holder, and concluded, “In short, the Government is wrong about both text and context. A ‘judgment’ does not necessarily involve discretion, nor does context indicate that only discretionary judgments are covered by § 1252(a)(2)(B)(i).”     

Barrett also disagreed with Patel’s interpretation, which would have limited the jurisdictional bar to the “granting of relief.” Barrett concluded that the statute “does not stop at just the grant or denial of relief; it extends to any judgment ‘regarding’ that ultimate decision.” Patel’s interpretation, she wrote, would read the word “regarding” out of the statute entirely.

As to arguments by Patel and the government regarding the presumption of judicial review, Barrett reasoned that because the statute is clear such a presumption is not necessary: “The plain meaning of that provision, not any interpretative presumption, drives our conclusion today.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. He led with the danger of administrative power and the consequences of the court’s opinion for immigrants: “Today, the Court holds that a federal bureaucracy can make an obvious factual error, one that will result in an individual’s removal from this country, and nothing can be done about it. No court may even hear the case. It is a bold claim promising dire consequences for countless lawful immigrants.”

Gorsuch humanized Patel’s immigration story and life in the United States and criticized the majority’s conclusion that “courts are powerless to correct bureaucratic mistakes like these no matter how grave they may be.” Gorsuch interpreted the jurisdictional bar more narrowly than the majority and read the language “any judgment regarding the granting of relief” to extend to step-two discretion in adjustment cases. He also departed from the court’s broad reading of “regarding” and concluded it is more likely to serve as a “narrowing function” cabined to step two. Gorsuch used a hypothetical to illustrate his position: “Please bring me any book regarding the history of the American West from that shelf of history books.” He concluded that the phrase “regarding the history of the American West” is a subset, narrowing the types of books that may be brought.

Gorsuch also relied on the broader statutory context to reach his conclusions. While the jurisdictional bar contains five forms of relief, each with its own eligibility requirements, the one thing they share, argued Gorsuch, is a step-two discretionary judgment, further illustrating the reach of the jurisdictional bar to the discretionary decision of whether to grant relief. He also relied on context clues when pointing to the title of the jurisdictional bar: “Denials of discretionary relief.” Finally, Gorsuch pointed to the statutory history before and behind the jurisdictional bar to argue that Congress intended to limit it to step-two discretion.

This case sheds light on the problems in our immigration system and the importance of legislative reform. Patel has lived in the United States for nearly 30 years. He has a wife and three children. And now Patel, who was in the process of applying for a green card, could face deportation without judicial review because he checked the wrong box on a driver’s license application. Under President Biden’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity, DHS and DOJ should collect data on adjustment cases involving facts like Patel’s that may have a disparate impact on certain groups of noncitizens.



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