Gorsuch’s Good Opinion
President Trump said he wanted Supreme Court Justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia, and on Tuesday he got his wish. Though Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the four liberals on an immigration case, his logic would have made the late Justice proud.
In Sessions v. Dimaya, the government sought to deport a legal resident twice convicted of first-degree burglary. The Immigration and Nationality Act lets the government deport any immigrant convicted of a “crime of violence.” The question is whether first-degree burglary is a violent crime.
Section 16b of the criminal code includes a residual clause that defines a violent crime as “any other offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan invoked the Court’s Johnson precedent and held that the residual clause was void for vagueness. In Johnson (2015), Justice Scalia’s majority opinion rejected a similar residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act and ruled that its vague language produced “more unpredictability and arbitrariness” than the Constitution allows.
Chief Justice John Roberts’s minority opinion tries to distinguish the residual clauses in the two cases to save Section 16b, which he notes “is incorporated into many procedural and substantive provisions of criminal law.” But he appears as concerned with the policy results of the Court’s decision as the legal merits.
The big news is Justice Gorsuch’s elegant concurring opinion that joins the majority result but for different reasons. “Vague laws invite arbitrary power,” he writes, “leaving the people in the dark about what the law demands and allowing prosecutors and courts to make it up.” (See Comey, James nearby.)
Justice Gorsuch writes that Congress is free to define 16b with more specific crimes. But until it does the vague statute violates the due process right of individuals by giving license to police and prosecutors to interpret laws as they wish. This defense of individuals against arbitrary state power was a Scalia staple. Justice Gorsuch adds that vague laws also threaten the Constitution’s ordered liberty because they “risk allowing judges to assume legislative power.”
Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is sending a useful message that Congress should write clearer laws that aren’t subject to arbitrary interpretation. Congress can rewrite immigration law, and the President should be pleased with his nominee for doing what he promised.
Appeared in the April 18, 2018, print edition.