March 28, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Vartelas v. Holder

On March 28, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Vartelas v. Holder, No. 10-1211, holding that a lawful permanent resident's right to reenter the United States after brief travel abroad, when that person was convicted of a crime of moral turpitude before the effective date of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), is governed by the legal regime in force at the time of the conviction, not by IIRIRA.

Panagis Vartelas, a native of Greece, became a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 1989. He was convicted of a felony in 1994. At the time he pleaded guilty, an alien could travel abroad for brief periods without jeopardizing his resident alien status. In 1996, Congress passed IIRIRA, which changed the legal rules governing the reentry of aliens who had traveled abroad. Under IIRIRA, aliens returning from a brief trip abroad could be permanently removed from the United States if they had a prior conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude.

After his conviction in 1994 and after IIRIRA was passed in 1996, Vartelas made short visits to Greece to see family members without incident. In 2003, Vartelas was detained upon his attempt to reenter the United States after a short visit to Greece. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) classified Vartelas as an alien seeking "admission" who was ineligible because his prior conviction was for a crime involving moral turpitude. An immigration judge ordered Vartelas removed to Greece. The BIA affirmed the immigration judge's decision, as did the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. 

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a split among the circuits as to whether IIRIRA could be applied to lawful permanent residents who committed crimes of moral turpitude before IIRIRA's enactment. In a 6-3 decision, it reversed the Second Circuit. Because IIRIRA did not prescribe whether it was retroactive in the circumstances of Vartelas's case, the Court employed the presumption against reading the statute retroactively. The Court concluded that applying IIRIRA to Vartelas would have an impermissible retroactive effect Congress did not authorize because it would attach a "new disability" to Vartelas's 1994 conviction that occurred before IIRIRA's enactment. The Court reasoned that applying IIRIRA would subject residents in Vartelas's position to "potential banishment," precluding them from attending religious obligations or responding to family emergencies. Instead, the Court held that the legal regime in place in 1994, when Vartelas pled guilty, should supply the rules governing his permanent resident status. Also, under applicable retroactivity principles, Vartelas was not required to show that he structured his conduct based on pre-IIRIRA law.

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Thomas and Alito joined.

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