On Tuesday, the highest court in the United States handed down a landmark ruling in an immigration case. The ruling is remarkable in and of itself, but it's also significant because Trump's Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, sided with liberal justices, casting a tie-breaking vote in a major immigration case.
The case in question had to do with a law that dictates when immigrants can be deported. As the law was written, immigrants could be deported when they are convicted of a "crime of violence." Tuesday's Supreme Court decision struck down that provision, declaring it unconstitutionally vague.
The case was originally heard in January of 2017, after Chief Justice Antonin Scalia died but before Gorsuch was appointed to replace him. The first time around, Talking Points Memo reports that the justices were tied in their decisions. This makes Gorsuch's choice to join his liberal counterparts even more significant. The Trump administration has long advanced hardline-anti immigration rhetoric and policy, and a Trump appointee deviating from that is a blow to the president and his team.
Generally, Supreme Court justices tend to make decisions ideologically in sync with the presidents that choose them. (This can change over time, though.) Gorsuch has only been a Supreme Court justice for one year, however, suggesting that his constitutional interpretations might be more uniquely his than they are beholden to any appointing president.
Tuesday's decision was about a man named James Dimaya, a native of the Philippines, who legally moved to the United States in 1992. He was 13 years old at the time.
Dimaya pleaded no contest to two burglary charges in California, after which the government initiated the deportation process. (Pleading no contest is not the same as pleading guilty, but it can have the same immediate result. It skirts a trial and is not an admission of guilt, but it also has very little effect on sentencing.)
Prosecution argued that Dimaya's crimes counted as "crimes of violence," and therefore qualified him for deportation. Dimaya appealed this decision, Slate reports, arguing that the term "crime of violence" was too ambiguous, and that it violated due process by not explicitly stating what type of behavior was illegal.
Various courts tend to define "crime of violence" differently, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote of Dimaya's case, and that, she concluded, was not fair. Specifically, Kagan said the law allowed "more unpredictability and arbitrariness than the Due Process Clause tolerates."
Gorsuch agreed with several parts of the decision, though not all. In his evaluation, he suggested that that any law which could impede upon a person's fundamental rights to life, liberty, and property should be examined for clarity:
Why, for example, would due process require Congress to speak more clearly when it seeks to deport a lawfully resident alien than when it wishes to subject a citizen to indefinite civil commitment, strip him of a business license essential to his family’s living, or confiscate his home?
Meanwhile, Trump and his administration have long made increasing deportations a top priority. Earlier in April, the Trump administration announced it planned to impose quotas on judges who oversee deportation cases, in an effort to speed them up. The Los Angeles Times reports that under the guidelines, immigration judges would be required to complete at least 700 deportation cases in a given year in order to be deemed "satisfactory."
"The big takeaway is that this is the equivalent of completing three cases a day, so it's not that big of a lift," Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley said of the quotas, according to the Times.
Not all experts agree. Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told The Washington Post that imposing such quotas could feasibly affect the neutrality of a judge's decisions.
"It could call into question the integrity and impartiality of the court if a judge’s decision is influenced by factors outside the facts of the case, or if motions are denied out of a judge’s concern about keeping his or her job,” she said."
As of Tuesday evening, neither Trump nor the White House had formally responded to the Supreme Court's decision, nor to Gorsuch's vote specifically.