U.S. Supreme Court justices on Monday expressed skepticism toward part of an immigration law requiring the deportation of immigrants who commit violent felonies because of uncertainty over which crimes fit the bill and which do not.
The justices heard arguments in the government's appeal of a lower court's ruling that language in the Immigration and Nationality Act calling for deportation of legal immigrants convicted of a "crime of violence" was so vague that it violated their rights to due process of law under the U.S. Constitution.
The case involves a Filipino legal immigrant named James Garcia Dimaya who federal authorities ordered deported after he was convicted in two California home burglaries, though neither crime involved violence.
There has been an intense focus on immigration issues since Republican President Donald Trump took office in January. The ruling in the case could help clarify the crimes for which non-citizen immigrants may be expelled, affecting the Trump administration's policy of stepping up the removal those with criminal records.
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Trump appointee who joined the court in April, could cast the deciding vote.
Monday's arguments marked the second time the court has tried to tackle the case. It heard arguments in January when the nine-seat court was one justice short, but decided in June after Gorsuch brought the court to full strength to have the case re-argued.
Several justices questioned the role of courts in judging certain crimes as violent. Gorsuch suggested it was up to the U.S. Congress to clearly specify what those crimes are. Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, meanwhile, noted that many burglaries occur in which doors to the residence are left open.
Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler, who argued for the Trump administration, said the potential for violence is there if a robber encounters the owner of the house, suggesting that the justices should defer to the immigration authorities.
"The immigration laws have long been enforced through a broad delegation of authority to the executive," Kneedler said.
Dimaya came to the United States from the Philippines as a legal permanent resident in 1992 at age 13. He lived with his family in the San Francisco Bay area, and had worked in several retail store jobs, including as a manager.
He was convicted in residential burglaries in 2007 and 2009 in crimes in which no violence was used and no one was injured. For each conviction he was sentenced to two years in prison.
In 2010, the government began a process to deport Dimaya. The Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals, the highest U.S. administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws, refused to cancel his expulsion because the law involved defines burglary as a "crime of violence."
In the federal criminal code, a "crime of violence" includes offenses in which force either was used or carried a "substantial risk" that it would be used.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that the definition as applied to non-citizen immigrants was unconstitutionally vague and can lead to arbitrary enforcement of the law.
The appeals court relied on a decision that same year by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that a similar provision in a federal criminal sentencing law was overly broad.
The case was argued on the first day of the court's new term. A ruling is due by the end of June.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)