Judulang v. Holder
565 U.S. ___ (2011)

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Justia Opinion Summary
This case concerned the BIA's policy for deciding when resident aliens could apply to the Attorney General for relief from deportation under a now-repealed provision of the immigration law. The Court held that the BIA's policy for applying section 212(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. 1182(c), in deportation cases was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. 706(2)(A). The Court concluded that the BIA's comparable-grounds rule was unmoored from the purposes and concerns of the immigration laws. It allowed an irrelevant comparison between statutory provisions to govern a matter of the utmost importance -whether lawful resident aliens with longstanding ties to this country could stay here. And contrary to the Government's protestations, it was not supported by text or practice or cost considerations. Therefore, the BIA's approach could not pass muster under ordinary principles of administrative law.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

JUDULANG v. HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 10–694. Argued October 12, 2011—Decided December 12, 2011

Federal immigration law governs both the exclusion of aliens from admission to this country and the deportation of aliens previously admitted. Before 1996, these two kinds of action occurred in different procedural settings; since then, the Government has employed a unified “removal proceeding” for exclusions and deportations alike. But the immigration laws have always provided separate lists of substantive grounds for the two actions. One list specifies what crimes render an alien excludable, see 8 U. S. C. §1182(a), while another—sometimes overlapping and sometimes divergent—list specifies what crimes render an alien deportable, see §1227(a).

          Until repealed in 1996, §212(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act permitted the Attorney General to grant discretionary relief to an excludable alien, if the alien had lawfully resided in the United States for at least seven years before temporarily leaving the country and if the alien was not excludable on one of two specified grounds. By its terms, §212(c) applied only in exclusion proceedings, but the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) extended it decades ago to deportation proceedings as well. Although Congress substituted a narrower discretionary remedy for §212(c) in 1996, see §1229b, §212(c)’s broader relief remains available to an alien whose removal is based on a guilty plea entered before §212(c)’s repeal, INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U. S. 289 .

          In deciding whether to exclude such an alien, the BIA first checks the statutory ground identified by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as the basis for exclusion. Unless that ground is one of the two falling outside §212(c)’s scope, the alien is eligible for discretionary relief. The BIA then determines whether to grant relief based on such factors as the seriousness of the offense.

          This case concerns the BIA’s method for applying §212(c) in the deportation context. The BIA’s approach, known as the “comparable-grounds” rule, evaluates whether the charged deportation ground has a close analogue in the statute’s list of exclusion grounds. If the deportation ground consists of a set of crimes “substantially equivalent” to the set making up an exclusion ground, the alien can seek §212(c) relief. But if the deportation ground covers different or more or fewer offenses than any exclusion ground, the alien is ineligible for relief, even if the alien’s particular offense falls within an exclusion ground.

          Petitioner Judulang, who has lived continuously in the United States as a lawful permanent resident since 1974, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 1988. After he pleaded guilty to another crime in 2005, DHS commenced a deportation action, charging him with having committed an “aggravated felony” involving “a crime of violence” based on his manslaughter conviction. The Immigration Judge ordered Judulang’s deportation, and the BIA affirmed, finding Judulang ineligible for §212(c) relief because the “crime of violence” deportation ground is not comparable to any exclusion ground. The Ninth Circuit, having previously upheld the BIA’s comparable-grounds rule, denied Judulang’s petition for review.

Held: The BIA’s policy for applying §212(c) in deportation cases is “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U. S. C. §706(2)(A). Pp. 9–21.

     (a) While agencies have expertise and experience in administering their statutes that no court may properly ignore, courts retain a narrow but important role in ensuring that agencies have engaged in reasoned decisionmaking. Thus, in reviewing the BIA’s action, this Court must assess, among other matters, “whether the decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors and whether there has been a clear error of judgment.” Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Assn. of United States, Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co., 463 U. S. 29 . That task involves examining the reasons for agency decisions, or the absence of such reasons.

     The comparable-grounds approach cannot survive scrutiny under this standard. By hinging a deportable alien’s eligibility for discretionary relief on the chance correspondence between statutory categories—a matter irrelevant to the alien’s fitness to reside in this country—the BIA has failed to exercise its discretion in a reasoned manner. Pp. 9–10.

     (b) Even if the BIA has legitimate reasons for limiting §212(c)’s scope in deportation cases, it must do so in some rational way. In other words, the BIA must use an approach that is tied to the purposes of the immigration laws or the appropriate operation of the immigration system. The comparable-grounds rule has no connection to these factors. Instead, it makes §212(c) eligibility turn on an irrelevant comparison between statutory provisions. Whether the set of offenses in a particular deportation ground lines up with the set in an exclusion ground has nothing to do with whether a deportable alien whose prior conviction falls within both grounds merits the ability to stay in this country. Here, Judulang was found ineligible for §212(c) relief because the “crime of violence” deportation ground includes a few offenses—simple assault, minor burglary, and unauthorized use of a vehicle—not found in the similar moral turpitude exclusion ground. But the inclusion of simple assaults and minor burglaries in the deportation ground is irrelevant to the merits of Judulang’s case.

     The BIA’s approach has other odd features. In applying the comparable-grounds rule, the BIA has denied relief to aliens whose deportation ground fits entirely within a much broader exclusion ground. Yet providing relief in exclusion cases to a broad class of aliens hardly justifies denying relief in deportation cases to a subset of that group. In addition, the outcome of the comparable-grounds analysis may itself rest on an arbitrary decision. An alien’s prior conviction could fall within a number of deportation grounds, only one of which corresponds to an exclusion ground. In such cases, an alien’s eligibility for relief would hinge on an individual official’s decision as to which deportation ground to charge. An alien appearing before one official may suffer deportation, while an identically situated alien appearing before another may gain the right to stay in this country.

     In short, the comparable-grounds approach does not rest on any factors relevant to whether an alien should be deported. Instead, it turns deportation decisions into a “sport of chance.” Rosenberg v. Fleuti, 374 U. S. 449 . That is what the APA’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard is designed to prevent. Pp. 10–15.

     (c) The Government’s arguments in defense of the comparable-grounds rule are not persuasive. First, §212(c)’s text does not support the rule. That section cannot provide a textual anchor for any method of providing discretionary relief in deportation cases because it addresses only exclusion. Second, the history of the comparable-grounds rule does not work in the Government’s favor. The BIA repeatedly vacillated in its method for applying §212(c) to deportable aliens, settling on the current rule only in 2005. Third, the Government’s claim that the comparable-grounds rule saves time and money falls short. Cost may be an important factor for agencies to consider in many contexts, but cheapness alone cannot save an arbitrary agency policy. In any event, it is unclear that the comparable-grounds rule saves money when compared with alternative approaches. Pp. 16–21.

249 Fed. Appx. 499, reversed and remanded.

     Kagan, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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