Supreme Court allows indefinite detention of immigrants and further erodes 6th amendment


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Johnson v. Arteaga-Martinez

Antonio Arteaga-Martinez, a citizen of Mexico, illegally entered the United States four times since 2001. He returned to Mexico to care for an ill relative in 2011, tried to reenter the U.S. in 2012, but was detained and deported. Back in Mexico, he was beaten and robbed by gang members, who stole his car, left him bound and gagged, and threatened to kill him. Fearing further violence, Arteaga-Martinez fled to the U.S. again where he remained for six years until his arrest by ICE in May 2018.

An asylum officer found that Arteaga-Martinez’s fear of persecution or torture should he be deported was credible. Yet, the government continued to detain him pending immigration court proceedings. Arteaga-Martinez filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus challenging his continued detention without a bond hearing. Both the District Court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that Arteaga-Martinez and other immigrants are entitled to a bond hearing after six months of detention. The government appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court ruled 8-1 that the post-removal order statute, Section 1231(a)(6), does not obligate the government to provide bond hearings after six months of detention. The majority’s opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, found that “the statute says nothing about bond hearings before immigration judges or burdens of proof, nor does it provide any other indication that such procedures are required.”

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred, arguing that the Due Process Clause does not impose any restrictions whatsoever to “the removal of aliens,” effectively abolishing constitutional restraints on the detention and deportation of noncitizens.

Justice Breyer dissented in part and concurred in part, essentially finding that a hearing may be required without coming down on either side of the issue.

Garland v. Gonzalez

Like Arteaga-Martinez, Esteban Aleman Gonzalez and Jose Eduardo Gutierrez Sanchez are citizens of Mexico who were detained under §1231(a)(6) after reentering the United States illegally. Asylum officers found that they both had a reasonable fear of persecution by a drug cartel in Mexico and referred their cases to an immigration court proceeding to seek protection from deportation, but ICE held them in detention while they awaited a hearing and ruling.

Gonzalez and Sanchez filed a class action lawsuit alleging that noncitizens are entitled to bond hearings after six months’ detention. The District Court ruled that the government cannot detain respondents for more than six months without an individual bond hearing and certified a class action, allowing other similarly situated plaintiffs to benefit from the ruling. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed and the government appealed to the Supreme Court.

Unlike Arteaga-Martinez’s case, the Supreme Court was not asked to weigh in on the six month bond hearing question. Instead, the court sought to determine whether another provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1252(f)(1), barred the class-wide injunctive relief the district court had ordered.

Writing for the 6-3 majority, Justice Samuel Alito found that when an entire class of noncitizens are subject to the exact same illegal treatment, courts can’t issue a single decision protecting all of them at once. His ruling relies on the meaning of individual words in the statute (1252(f)(1)), putting more value on dictionary definitions than on the spirit of the law and how it may be constrained by the Constitution.

…the critical language in this provision strips lower courts of “jurisdiction or authority” to “enjoin or restrain the operation of ” the relevant statutory provisions. The ordinary meaning of these terms bars the class-wide relief awarded by the two District Courts.

The term “to enjoin” ordinarily means to “require,” “command,” or “positively direct” an action or to “require a person to perform, . . . or to abstain or desist from, some act.” Black’s Law Dictionary 529 (6th ed. 1990); see also Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 754 (1993) (defining “enjoin” to mean “to direct, prescribe, or impose by order”)… The object of the verbs “enjoin or restrain” is the “operation of” certain provisions of federal immigration law. The “operation of ” (a thing) means the functioning of or working of (that thing). Random House Dictionary of the English Language 1357 (2d ed. 1987) (“an act or instance, process, or manner of functioning or operating”); Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, at 1581 (“method or manner of functioning”).

Justice Sotomayor dissented, joined by Kagan and Breyer. The majority, she writes, “reaches [its] conclusion in a purportedly textualist opinion that, in truth, elevates piecemeal dictionary definitions and policy concerns over plain meaning and context.”

The ramifications of the Court’s errors should not be ignored. Today’s holding risks depriving many vulnerable noncitizens of any meaningful opportunity to protect their rights…In a great many cases, the inevitable consequence of barring classwide injunctive relief will be that those violations will go unremedied, except as to the few fortunate enough to afford competent collateral counsel or to secure vigorous pro bono representation. The burdens will fall on those least able to vindicate their rights, as well as the law firms and nonprofit organizations that will endeavor to assist as many of these noncitizens as their capacity permits.

What this means

The Supreme Court’s rulings in Arteaga-Martinez and Gonzalez allow the federal government to lock up immigrants for months or years without a bond hearing. According to the non-profit Freedom for Immigrants, “48 percent of people we work with are held in immigration detention for 2 to 4 years.” Immigration detention is a civil, not a criminal matter; it is not supposed to be a “punishment” at all. Yet noncitizens are often held in county jails and remote rural prisons in deplorable conditions.

Arteaga-Martinez, for example, was sent to York County Prison in Pennsylvania, where detainees reported denials of medical care, insufficient food, and unsafe water. The County ultimately ended its contract with ICE last year due to “financial concerns” with bringing the facility up to federal standards.

Unfortunately, the conditions at York County prison are replicated in immigration detention facilities across the country. Now, with the blessing of the highest court in the land, noncitizens can be held in these unsafe conditions for indefinite periods of time.


The Supreme Court declined to intervene in a Texas death row case just two years after holding that a “tidal wave” of evidence raised questions about his sentence.

In 2008, 20-year-old Terence Andrus unsuccessfully attempted a carjacking in a grocery store parking lot while under the influence of PCP-laced marijuana. He ended up shooting and killing the car owner and a bystander. During his trial, Andrus’ defense counsel did not present a defense—at all, did not present an opening statement, and conceded guilt during closing arguments.

During the punishment phase, Andrus’ counsel again presented no opening statement and performed virtually no investigation even though there was a “vast” body of evidence that might have swayed the jury against the death penalty. For example, Andrus had experienced “a childhood marked by extreme neglect and privation, a family environment filled with violence and abuse.” His mother was a drug addict and a prostitute, often leaving Andrus to care for his siblings when he was as young as 12 years old and, at other times, bringing home physically abusive boyfriends. The jury never heard this mitigating evidence and consequently sentenced Andrus to death.

After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) refused to grant a new punishment phase of trial due to ineffective assistance of counsel, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in 2020 that the TCCA must reconsider the case. The unsigned opinion—joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Kavanaugh, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan—explained that Andrus’ counsel’s performance was “constitutionally deficient” and that the TCCA “may have failed properly to engage with the follow-on question whether Andrus has shown that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced him.”

Justice Alito, joined by Thomas and Gorsuch, wrote a sarcastic dissent arguing that the TCCA “said explicitly that Andrus failed to show prejudice”.

So, ordered to reconsider the case, the TCCA issued a 5-4 decision last year finding that “[t]he mitigating evidence is not particularly compelling, and the aggravating evidence is extensive,” in direct opposition to the Supreme Court’s ruling. “We reaffirm our earlier conclusion that applicant has failed to show prejudice, and we deny relief.”

Andrus appealed to the Supreme Court again. This time, however, with a stronger conservative majority, the Court refused to hear the case, allowing Texas to execute Andrus (unless the federal courts step in during a habeas review). Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh—who previously held that Andrus’ Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel was violated—switched sides without explanation.

As the liberal justices, led by Sotomayor, laid out in dissent, the Texas court was openly defiant of the Supreme Court’s 2020 opinion—and the new conservative majority rewarded them for it.

On remand, the Court of Criminal Appeals, in a divided 5-to-4 decision, failed to follow this Court’s ruling. Instead of properly weighing the habeas evidence as a whole, the Texas court concluded that Andrus failed to establish prejudice (and therefore denied habeas relief ) based on its disagreement with, and rejection of, the determinations underlying this Court’s holding that Andrus’ counsel had rendered deficient performance…

In summarizing this Court’s opinion vacating and remanding, the majority of the Texas court four times described this Court’s conclusions as what the Court “believed.” Twice more, the majority caveated this Court’s determinations with “[a]ccording to the Court.” Most strikingly, the majority described what it called “certain alleged failures by counsel” from this Court’s opinion, which had directly held that these failures constituted deficient performance under Strickland prong one…The majority based its decision almost entirely on its disagreement with the conclusions underlying this Court’s holding as to Strickland prong one. It accordingly dismissed the mitigating evidence this Court had found “compelling” and “powerful,” as “not particularly compelling” and “relatively weak”…

On remand from this Court, however, other courts generally are not free to dispute this Court’s conclusions. To the contrary, “it is essential” that courts “follow both the words and the music of Supreme Court opinions” on issues of federal law. The Court of Criminal Appeals followed neither here.

What this means

The conservative majority of the Supreme Court has (yet again) proved it is hostile to any 6th amendment claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Furthermore, the majority sent a message to lower courts that it won’t necessarily honor past decisions handed down before Trump remade the court. Even the Federal Society’s Ken Starr (also known from the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation and Trump’s first impeachment trial) called on the Supreme Court to hold the Texas court accountable for thumbing its nose at the 2020 majority’s decision:

In this instance, a narrow majority of Texas judges may have believed that the Supreme Court was wrong about Andrus. But this does not matter, as I know from my own experience as an appellate judge. The state judges had an inviolable duty to ensure its proceedings were consistent with the High Court’s decision…For our system to work, the Supreme Court must make sure its rulings are respected and faithfully applied. In this case, I hope the Supreme Court will correct the Texas court’s fundamental error, especially since Andrus faces the most extreme punishment our government can impose. Ignoring this departure from binding authority would be inimical to the fundamental principles of our constitutional system and the necessity of judicial restraint.

The fact of the matter is, six Supreme Court justices are now farther right than Ken Starr. Let that sink in.