Maslenjak v. United States
582 US ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Maslenjak is an ethnic Serb who resided in Bosnia during the civil war. In 1998, she and her family sought refugee status in the U.S.. Interviewed under oath, Maslenjak explained that the family feared persecution: Muslims would mistreat them because of their ethnicity, and Serbs would abuse them because Maslenjak’s husband had evaded service in the Bosnian Serb Army. They were granted refugee status. Years later, Maslenjak applied for citizenship and swore that she had never given false information to a government official while applying for an immigration benefit or lied to an official to gain entry. She was naturalized. It later emerged Maslenjak had known all along that her husband spent the war years as an officer in the Bosnian Serb Army. The government charged Maslenjak with knowingly “procur[ing], contrary to law, [her] naturalization,” 18 U.S.C. 1425(a). The Supreme Court vacated her conviction, reversing the Sixth Circuit. Section 1425(a) makes clear that, to secure a conviction, the government must establish that the defendant’s illegal act played a role in her acquisition of citizenship. Under the government’s reading “Some legal violations that do not justify denying citizenship would nonetheless justify revoking it later.” The statute Congress passed strips a person of citizenship not when she committed any illegal act during the naturalization process, but only when that act played some role in her naturalization. The government must prove that the misrepresented fact was sufficiently relevant to a naturalization criterion that it would have prompted reasonable officials, “seeking only evidence concerning citizenship qualifications,” to undertake further investigation. If that is true, the inquiry turns to the prospect that the investigation would have borne disqualifying fruit. When the government can make its two-part showing, the defendant may overcome it by establishing that she was nonetheless qualified for citizenship.

Prior History

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

MASLENJAK v. UNITED STATES

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

No. 16–309. Argued April 26, 2017—Decided June 22, 2017

Petitioner Divna Maslenjak is an ethnic Serb who resided in Bosnia during the 1990’s, when a civil war divided the new country. In 1998, she and her family sought refugee status in the United States. Interviewed under oath, Maslenjak explained that the family feared persecution from both sides of the national rift: Muslims would mistreat them because of their ethnicity, and Serbs would abuse them because Maslenjak’s husband had evaded service in the Bosnian Serb Army by absconding to Serbia. Persuaded of the Maslenjaks’ plight, American officials granted them refugee status. Years later, Maslenjak applied for U. S. citizenship. In the application process, she swore that she had never given false information to a government official while applying for an immigration benefit or lied to an official to gain entry into the United States. She was naturalized as a U. S. citizen. But it soon emerged that her professions of honesty were false: Maslenjak had known all along that her husband spent the war years not secreted in Serbia, but serving as an officer in the Bosnian Serb Army.

The Government charged Maslenjak with knowingly “procur[ing], contrary to law, [her] naturalization,” in violation of 18 U. S. C. §1425(a). According to the Government’s theory, Maslenjak violated §1425(a) because, in the course of procuring her naturalization, she broke another law: 18 U. S. C. §1015(a), which prohibits knowingly making a false statement under oath in a naturalization proceeding. The District Court instructed the jury that, to secure a conviction under §1425(a), the Government need not prove that Maslenjak’s false statements were material to, or influenced, the decision to approve her citizenship application. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the conviction, holding that if Maslenjak made false statements violating §1015(a) and procured naturalization, then she also violated §1425(a).

Held:

1. The text of §1425(a) makes clear that, to secure a conviction, the Government must establish that the defendant’s illegal act played a role in her acquisition of citizenship. To “procure . . . naturalization” means to obtain it. And the adverbial phrase “contrary to law” specifies how a person must procure naturalization so as to run afoul of the statute: illegally. Thus, someone “procure[s], contrary to law, naturalization” when she obtains citizenship illegally. As ordinary usage demonstrates, the most natural understanding of that phrase is that the illegal act must have somehow contributed to the obtaining of citizenship. To get citizenship unlawfully is to get it through an unlawful means—and that is just to say that an illegality played some role in its acquisition.

The Government’s contrary view—that §1425(a) requires only a violation in the course of procuring naturalization—falters on the way language naturally works. Suppose that an applicant for citizenship fills out the paperwork in a government office with a knife tucked away in her handbag. She has violated the law against possessing a weapon in a federal building, and she has done so in the course of procuring citizenship, but nobody would say she has “procure[d]” her citizenship “contrary to law.” That is because the violation of law and the acquisition of citizenship in that example are merely coincidental: The one has no causal relation to the other. Although the Government attempts to define such examples out of the statute, that effort falls short for multiple reasons. Most important, the Government’s attempted carve-out does nothing to alter the linguistic understanding that gives force to the examples the Government would exclude. Under ordinary rules of language usage, §1425(a) demands a causal or means-end connection between a legal violation and naturalization.

The broader statutory context reinforces the point, because the Government’s reading would create a profound mismatch between the requirements for naturalization and those for denaturalization: Some legal violations that do not justify denying citizenship would nonetheless justify revoking it later. For example, lies told out of “embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy” (rather than “for the purpose of obtaining [immigration] benefits”) are not generally disqualifying under the statutory requirement of “good moral character.” Kungys v. United States, 485 U. S. 759 ; 8 U. S. C. §1101(f)(6). But under the Government’s reading of §1425(a), any lie told in the naturalization process would provide a basis for rescinding citizenship. The Government could thus take away on one day what it was required to give the day before. And by so unmooring the revocation of citizenship from its award, the Government opens the door to a world of disquieting consequences—which this Court would need far stronger textual support to believe Congress intended. The statute Congress passed, most naturally read, strips a person of citizenship not when she committed any illegal act during the naturalization process, but only when that act played some role in her naturalization. Pp. 4–9.

2. When the underlying illegality alleged in a §1425(a) prosecution is a false statement to government officials, a jury must decide whether the false statement so altered the naturalization process as to have influenced an award of citizenship. Because the entire naturalization process is set up to provide little room for subjective preferences or personal whims, that inquiry is properly framed in objective terms: To decide whether a defendant acquired citizenship by means of a lie, a jury must evaluate how knowledge of the real facts would have affected a reasonable government official properly applying naturalization law.

If the facts the defendant misrepresented are themselves legally disqualifying for citizenship, the jury can make quick work of that inquiry. In such a case, the defendant’s lie must have played a role in her naturalization. But that is not the only time a jury can find that a defendant’s lies had the requisite bearing on a naturalization decision, because lies can also throw investigators off a trail leading to disqualifying facts. When relying on such an investigation-based theory, the Government must make a two-part showing. Initially, the Government must prove that the misrepresented fact was sufficiently relevant to a naturalization criterion that it would have prompted reasonable officials, “seeking only evidence concerning citizenship qualifications,” to undertake further investigation. Kungys, 485 U. S., at 774, n. 9. If that much is true, the inquiry turns to the prospect that such an investigation would have borne disqualifying fruit. The Government need not show definitively that its investigation would have unearthed a disqualifying fact. It need only establish that the investigation “would predictably have disclosed” some legal disqualification. Id., at 774. If that is so, the defendant’s misrepresentation contributed to the citizenship award in the way §1425(a) requires. This demanding but still practicable causal standard reflects the real-world attributes of cases premised on what an unhindered investigation would have found.

When the Government can make its two-part showing, the defendant may overcome it by establishing that she was qualified for citizenship (even though she misrepresented facts that suggested the opposite). Thus, whatever the Government shows with respect to a thwarted investigation, qualification for citizenship is a complete defense to a prosecution under §1425(a). Pp. 10–15.

3. Measured against this analysis, the jury instructions in this case were in error. The jury needed to find more than an unlawful false statement. However, it was not asked to—and so did not—make any of the necessary determinations. The Government’s assertion that any instructional error was harmless is left for resolution on remand. Pp. 15–16.

821 F. 3d 675, vacated and remanded.

Kagan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Gorsuch, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Thomas, J., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Primary Holding

To get a conviction for illegally procuring citizenship, the prosecution needs to show that the defendant's illegal conduct was material to or influenced the decision to grant them citizenship.

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