May 07, 2020

Supreme Court Decides United States v. Sineneng-Smith

On May 7, 2020, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Sineneng-Smith, No. 19-67, holding that, absent extraordinary circumstances, courts must adhere to the principle of party presentation and decide only those questions that the parties choose to present.

The United States charged the respondent with committing federal crimes in her work operating an immigration consulting firm. After respondent was indicted for multiple violations of federal law, she argued in the district court, through competent counsel, that the federal law at issue did not govern her conduct and, if it did, that the law violated her rights under the First Amendment’s Petition and Free Speech Clauses. Respondent did not prevail, and a jury convicted her of multiple violations of the federal law.

On appeal before the Ninth Circuit, respondent advanced the same arguments. The Ninth Circuit then sua sponte named three amici and invited them to brief and argue issues that the court, not the parties, raised, including whether the federal law at issue violated the First Amendment’s overbreadth doctrine. The Ninth Circuit also invited the amici to brief any other issues they believed the law and the record demanded. Consistent with the amici’s briefing, the Ninth Circuit held that the federal law, in fact, violated the First Amendment’s overbreadth doctrine. The United States petitioned for certiorari because the Ninth Circuit’s decision invalidated a federal law.

The Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit abused its discretion when it drastically departed from the principle of party presentation, and it reversed and remanded the Ninth Circuit’s decision. The Court reiterated that, generally, parties are responsible for presenting to the courts the facts and issues they believe entitle them to relief, and trial and appellate courts must normally decide only those questions that the parties choose to present. The Court acknowledged that there are exceptions to this rule of party presentation, for example, in the context of pro se litigation or if a party clearly miscalculates the elapsed time under a statute of limitation. But it held that no such extraordinary circumstances warranted the Ninth Circuit’s departure from the principle of party presentation in respondent’s case.

Justice Ginsburg announced the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion.

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