Vartelas v. Holder
566 U.S. ___ (2012)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary
Petitioner, a native of Greece and a lawful permanent resident (LPR) of the United States, plead guilty to a felony in 1994. Petitioner later traveled to Greece in 2003 to visit his parents and on his return to the United States, he was treated as an inadmissible alien and placed in removal proceedings. Under the law governing at the time of petitioner's plea, an alien in his situation could travel abroad for brief periods without jeopardizing his resident alien status, 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(13). This case presented a question of retroactivity not addressed by Congress: As to an LPR convicted of a crime before the effective date of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(13)(C)(v) and 1182(a)(2), which regime governed, the one in force at the time of the conviction, or IIRIRA? Guided by the deeply rooted presumption against retroactive legislation, the Court held that section 1101(a)(13)(C)(v) did not apply to petitioner's conviction. The impact of petitioner's brief travel abroad on his permanent resident status was therefore determined not by IIRIRA, but by the legal regime in force at the time of his conviction. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Second Circuit and remanded for further proceedings.

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

VARTELAS v. HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL

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

No. 10–1211. Argued January 18, 2012—Decided March 28, 2012

Before passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), United States immigration law provided deportation hearings for excludable aliens who had already entered the United States and exclusion hearings for excludable aliens seeking entry into the United States. Lawful permanent residents were not regarded as making an “entry,” upon their return from “innocent, casual, and brief excursion[s] . . . outside this country’s borders.” Rosenberg v. Fleuti, 374 U. S. 449 . In IIRIRA, Congress abolished the distinction between exclusion and deportation procedures, creating a uniform “removal” proceeding. See 8 U. S. C. §§1229, 1229a. Congress made “admission” the key word, and defined “admission” to mean “the lawful entry of the alien into the United States after inspection and authorization by an immigration officer.” §1101(a)(13)(A). This alteration, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) determined, superseded Fleuti. Thus, lawful permanent residents returning from a trip abroad are now regarded as seeking admission if they have “committed an offense identified in section 1182(a)(2),” §1101(a)(13)(C)(v), including, as relevant here, “a crime involving moral turpitude . . . or conspiracy to commit such a crime,” §1182(a)(2)(A)(i).

          Petitioner Vartelas, a lawful permanent resident of the United States since 1989, pleaded guilty to a felony (conspiring to make a counterfeit security) in 1994, and served a 4-month prison sentence. In the years after his conviction, and even after IIRIRA’s passage, Vartelas regularly traveled to Greece to visit his aging parents. In 2003, when Vartelas returned from a week-long trip to Greece, an immigration officer classified him as an alien seeking “admission” based on his 1994 conviction. At Vartelas’ removal proceedings, his attorneys conceded removability and requested discretionary relief under former §212(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The Immigration Judge denied the request for relief, and ordered Vartelas removed to Greece. The BIA affirmed. In 2008, Vartelas filed with the BIA a timely motion to reopen the removal proceedings, alleging that his previous attorneys were ineffective for, among other lapses, conceding his removability. He sought to withdraw the concession of removability on the ground that IIRIRA’s new “admission” provision did not reach back to deprive him of lawful resident status based on his pre-IIRIRA conviction. The BIA denied the motion. The Second Circuit affirmed. Rejecting Vartelas’ argument that IIRIRA operated prospectively and therefore did not govern his case, the Second Circuit reasoned that he had not relied on the prior legal regime at the time he committed the disqualifying crime.

Held: The impact of Vartelas’ brief travel abroad on his permanent resident status is determined not by IIRIRA, but by the legal regime in force at the time of his conviction. Pp. 7–17.

     (a) Under the principle against retroactive legislation invoked by Vartelas, courts read laws as prospective in application unless Congress has unambiguously instructed retroactivity. See Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U. S. 244 . The presumption against retroactive legislation “embodies a legal doctrine centuries older than our Republic.” Id., at 265. Numerous decisions of this Court have invoked Justice Story’s formulation for determining when a law’s retrospective application would collide with the doctrine, namely, as relevant here, when such application would “attac[h] a new disability, in respect to transactions or considerations already past,” Society for Propagation of Gospel v. Wheeler, 22 F. Cas. 756, 767. See, e.g., INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U. S. 289 ; Hughes Aircraft Co. v. United States ex rel. Schumer, 520 U. S. 939 ; Landgraf, 511 U. S., at 283. Vartelas urges that applying IIRIRA to him would attach a “new disability,” effectively a ban on travel outside the United States, “in respect to” past events, specifically, his offense, guilty plea, conviction, and punishment, all occurring prior to IIRIRA’s passage.

     Congress did not expressly prescribe §1101(a)(13)’s temporal reach. The Court, therefore, proceeds to the dispositive question whether application of IIRIRA’s travel restraint to Vartelas “would have retroactive effect” Congress did not authorize. See id., at 280. Vartelas presents a firm case for application of the antiretroactivity principle. Beyond genuine doubt §1101(a)(13)(C)(v)’s restraint on lawful permanent residents like Vartelas ranks as a “new disability.” Once able to journey abroad to, e.g., fulfill religious obligations or respond to family emergencies, they now face potential banishment, a severe sanction. See, e.g., Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U. S. ___, ___. The Government suggests that Vartelas could have avoided any adverse consequences if he simply stayed at home in the United States. But losing the ability to travel abroad is itself a harsh penalty, made all the more devastating if it means enduring separation from close family members.

     This Court has rejected arguments for retroactivity in similar cases, see Chew Heong v. United States, 112 U. S. 536 ; St. Cyr, 533 U. S., at 321–323, and in cases in which the loss at stake was less momentous, see Landgraf, 511 U. S., at 280–286; Hughes Aircraft, 520 U. S., at 946–950. Pp. 7–11.

     (b) The Court finds disingenuous the Government’s argument that no retroactive effect is involved in this case because the relevant event is the alien’s post-IIRIRA return to the United States. Vartelas’ return occasioned his treatment as a new entrant, but the reason for his “new disability” was his pre-IIRIRA conviction. That past misconduct is the wrongful activity targeted by §1101(a)(13)(C)(v). Pp. 11–13.

     (c) In determining that the change IIRIRA wrought had no retroactive effect, the Second Circuit homed in on the words “committed an offense” in §1101(a)(13)(C)(v). It reasoned that reliance on the prior law is essential to application of the antiretroactivity principle, and that Vartelas did not commit his crime in reliance on immigration laws. This reasoning is doubly flawed. A party is not required to show reliance on the prior law in structuring his conduct. See, e.g., Landgraf, 511 U. S., at 282, n. 35. In any event, Vartelas likely relied on then-existing immigration law, and this likelihood strengthens the case for reading a newly enacted law prospectively. St. Cyr is illustrative. There, a lawful permanent resident pleaded guilty to a criminal charge that made him deportable. Under the immigration law in effect when he was convicted, he would have been eligible to apply for a waiver of deportation. But his removal proceeding was commenced after IIRIRA withdrew that dispensation. Disallowance of discretionary waivers attached a new disability to past conduct, 533 U. S., at 321. Aliens like St. Cyr “almost certainly relied upon th[e] likelihood [of receiving discretionary relief] in deciding [to plead guilty, thereby] forgo[ing] their right to a trial,” id., at 325. Because applying the IIRIRA withdrawal to St. Cyr would have an “obvious and severe retroactive effect,” ibid., and Congress made no such intention plain, ibid., n. 55, the prior law governed St. Cyr’s case. Vartelas’ case is at least as clear as St. Cyr’s for declining to apply a new law retroactively. St. Cyr could seek only the Attorney General’s discretionary dispensation, while Vartelas, under Fleuti, was free, without seeking an official’s permission, to make short trips to see and assist his parents in Greece. The Second Circuit compounded its initial misperception of the antiretroactivity principle by holding otherwise. Fleuti continues to govern Vartelas’ short-term travel. Pp. 14–17.

620 F. 3d 108, reversed and remanded.

     Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas and Alito, JJ., joined.

Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.