Pubdate: Tue, 15 Jun 2010
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: A20
Copyright: 2010 The New York Times Company
Author: Adam Liptak
Referenced: the Supreme Court decision


WASHINGTON -- Immigrants who are legally in the United States need 
not be automatically deported for minor drug offenses, the Supreme 
Court ruled Monday in a unanimous decision.

Lower courts had said that Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo, a permanent 
resident of the United States who had lived here since 1983, when he 
was 5, was subject to mandatory deportation for a second drug 
offense, this one involving possession of single tablet of a prescription drug.

The question in the case was whether that second offense amounted to 
an "aggravated felony." If it did, the government had no choice but 
to deport him under the immigration laws. If it did not, the attorney 
general had the discretion to show leniency.

In 2004, Mr. Carachuri-Rosendo was sentenced by a Texas state court 
judge to 20 days in jail for possession of less than two ounces of 
marijuana. The next year, he was sentenced to 10 days in jail for 
having a single tablet of Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, without a prescription.

Those were both misdemeanors under state law. But federal authorities 
argued that a second drug offense counted as an aggravated felony 
under federal law, making Mr. Carachuri-Rosendo ineligible for 
discretionary relief from deportation.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for seven justices, said the 
interactions of the various state and federal laws in the case 
required analysis of a "maze of statutory cross-references" and a 
2006 decision, Lopez v. Gonzales, that rooted the definition of 
"aggravated felony" in federal law even when state offenses were involved.

At bottom, Justice Stevens wrote, "a 10-day sentence for the 
unauthorized possession of a trivial amount of a prescription drug" 
is at odds with the ordinary meaning of "aggravated felony," even if 
federal prosecutors could, in theory, have sought a two-year sentence 
in federal court for the second drug offense.

"Carachuri-Rosendo, and others in his position, may now seek 
cancellation of removal and thereby avoid the harsh consequence of 
mandatory removal," Justice Stevens wrote. But "any relief he may 
obtain depends upon the discretion of the attorney general."

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, in separate 
concurrences, voted with the majority but declined to adopt its 
reasoning in the case, Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, No. 09-60.

Capital Punishment

A death-row inmate in Florida was given a second chance to argue that 
an otherwise strict one-year filing deadline should not apply to him, 
in light of his lawyer's inaccessibility and incompetence. The vote was 7 to 2.

The case concerned an unusually diligent and savvy inmate, Albert 
Holland, and an uncommunicative lawyer, Bradley Collins, who was 
appointed to handle Mr. Holland's habeas corpus challenges to his 
murder conviction and death sentence.

Mr. Holland complained to the Florida Supreme Court in June 2004 of 
"a complete breakdown in communications," saying he had not seen or 
spoken to his lawyer in 14 months and felt abandoned. He asked for a 
new lawyer.

Florida prosecutors responded that Mr. Holland was not allowed to 
communicate with the court directly because he was represented by 
counsel, an argument accepted by the court. In a concurrence on 
Monday, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. called that ruling perverse.

Over the years, Mr. Holland peppered his lawyer with letters 
reminding him of a tight filing deadline in federal court that would 
follow a decision by the State Supreme Court. He wrote to his lawyer 
to explain the relevant procedures. ("Holland was right about the 
law," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in Monday's majority decision.)

Nonetheless, Mr. Collins neither informed his client when the state 
court ruled against him nor filed the required papers in time to seek 
review in federal court.

When Mr. Holland learned independently of the state court decision in 
the prison library, he immediately filed his own paperwork, but it 
was too late.

In a rare response to a letter from Mr. Holland, Mr. Collins said 
that the relevant deadlines had passed by the time he was appointed 
to the case. ("Collins was wrong about the law," Justice Breyer wrote.)

The question in the case was whether Mr. Collins's conduct was 
sufficient to suspend a deadline in a 1996 law limiting death penalty 
litigation. The court did not decide that question, but it said the 
appeals court had used too narrow a standard in saying that a 
lawyer's negligence was never enough.

Justice Breyer's opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts 
Jr. and Justices Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 
Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Alito largely agreed but said the majority had not laid down 
a clear standard of its own. He suggested that the salient facts in 
the case, Holland v. Florida, No. 09-5327, were Mr. Collins's 
apparent abandonment of his client and prosecutors' insistence that 
only Mr. Collins could speak for Mr. Holland.

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented. He said the 
court was powerless under the Constitution to rewrite the law.

"The court's impulse to intervene when a litigant's lawyer has made 
mistakes is understandable; the temptation to tinker with the 
technical rules to achieve what appears a just result is often 
strong, especially when the client faces a capital sentence," Justice 
Scalia said. But he added that "unelected judges" must resist such impulses.

California Prisons

The court agreed to hear arguments over whether a special panel of 
federal judges in California was authorized to order the release of 
40,000 inmates from state prisons to relieve overcrowding. The case 
is Schwarzenegger v. Plata, No. 09-1233.


The court declined to hear an appeal from Maher Arar, a Canadian who 
says American officials sent him to Syria to be tortured. The federal 
appeals court in New York ruled last year that Mr. Arar could not sue 
for damages because Congress had not authorized such suits.

The Supreme Court gave no reasons for its decision, and there were no 
noted dissents. Justice Sotomayor, who had participated in the 
appeals court argument, disqualified herself from the case, Arar v. 
Ashcroft, No. 09-923. 
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