Immigration Clinic wins unanimous Supreme Court decision

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Geoffrey A. Hoffman

The Law Center’s Immigration Clinic has rattled the immigration world with a slam dunk on a unanimous decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.  The deportation case that Law Center students and faculty have shepherded through the courts for more than four years is a true game-changer, according to Geoffrey A. Hoffman, co-counsel on the case and clinical associate professor and faculty supervisor of the Immigration Clinic.  “This is a decision that will have a lasting impact on thousands of immigrants,” he said. “To me it’s a real victory for the constitutional protection of due process.”

In December, Hoffman said it was “very, very rare” for the Supreme Court to hear a case from a law clinic.  In the wake of the ruling, Hoffman might consider adding an upper-case “VERY” to describe the rarity of a unanimous SCOTUS decision for a clinic team.

The primary issue in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder was whether courts can view a second or subsequent drug possession offense (a federal misdemeanor) as a drug trafficking aggravated felony. Appeals were previously argued before the 5 th and 7 th Circuits, which found that virtually any second or subsequent state possession conviction may be deemed an aggravated felony for immigration purposes, as well as for enhancement of federal criminal sentences.

In its 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court found that since there was no finding of recidivism or enhancement charge at the state level, the two minor drug convictions did not constitute an aggravated federal felony. During oral arguments, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg zeroed in on whether the defendant would have pleaded no contest to the second misdemeanor charge if he had been aware it could be construed as a federal felony and used to deport him.

The case involved a legal resident alien from Mexico who had lived in the United States for 22 years when he pleaded no contest to a second misdemeanor charge for possession of a single Xanax tablet. He was ordered deported by a federal immigration judge. The Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed the decision, but disagreed with the judge’s analysis of the law.  The Immigration Clinic took on the case shortly thereafter. Hoffman assumed the directorship of the Immigration Clinic last fall and, despite the appeals court setbacks, was immediately optimistic about the case, especially in light of the comments from the BIA. “I thought all along, ‘We’ve got a chance!’“ he said.

Hoffman credited his predecessors on the case, two former clinic attorneys – Anne Chandler ’98 and Tom Perkinson ’00 – and the students who drafted the merits brief to the high court: Andrea Boulares, Magda Gonzalez, and Charlotte Simon, all of whom will be 3Ls at the Law Center for the upcoming Fall 2010 semester.   Sri Srinivasan of the Washington, D.C., firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP, presented the oral argument before the nation’s highest court.

Hoffman’s first order of business after learning of the decision was to send out a flurry of congratulatory e-mails to all of those involved.  To send one of your own to his team, click to this address: ghoffman@central.uh.edu.

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