Earlier this month the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of United States v. Chan. That case involves a longtime U.S. green card holder and British national who is trying to get her prior convictions for perjury overturned. The argument is that the lawyer who represented the green card holder misled her on what would happen to her immigration status if she decided to plead guilty, which she ultimately did.
The convictions at issue are old, dating back to 1993, but they are surfacing now because the immigration authorities recently initiated deportation proceedings against the green card holder, relying on the 1993 convictions.
The issue in the case is whether the green card holder is entitled to postconviction relief because her former attorney misled her about the immigration consequences of her prior convictions. If she does, then there is a chance she may also be able to avoid deportation.
The district/trial court said no but the appeals court disagrees. The appeals court rules that the green card holder is allowed to rely on and benefit from a Ninth Circuit decision that came out after the green card holder was convicted of perjury.
Generally, decisions that are issued after the event for which one seeks relief cannot be applied retroactively. But there are exceptions to this rule, and in some cases the rule just doesn’t apply. Here, the green card holder convinced the appeals court that the rule of non-retroactivity did not apply to the decision that she says is her key to overturning her perjury convictions. That decision is United States v . Kwan, 407 F.3d 1005 (9th Cir. 2005).
There was a smattering of opinions in this case among the three judges who were on the appellate panel. One judge (Bybee) agreed that Kwan could be applied retroactively but said that the green card holder could still benefit from Kwan on the basis of stare decisis — the latin phrase for “to stand by things decided” — because the two cases are identical. When applied to court decisions this principle signifies that prior court decisions should control cases that come after it. What Justice Roberts once likened to a judge who just calls balls and strikes (Roberts placed himself in that category of judges).
Another judge (Ikuta) disagreed with the majority’s retroacitivity analysis. Ikuta acknowledged that the case before the court was a “sympathetic” one but thought the majority came out wrong in its legal analysis.
In any event, the significant aspect of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Chan, aside from the benefit it confers to our green card holder, is that it deepens the split among the federal appeals courts on whether decisions making it unlawful for an attorney to affirmatively misadvise a client on immigration consequences can be applied retroactively. I know, an issue that sounds like something only a lawyer, or a lawyer’s lawyer, would get excited about. But its implications are considerable given that immigration continues to remove record numbers of foreign nationals from this country come hell or high water. Right now, one appellate court has said yes to retroactivity (the Second Circuit), and another one has said no (the Seventh Circuit). If you’re keeping score, that is 2 for retroactivity and 1 for non-retroactivity.
The existence of a circuit split also means that it makes it more likely that the Supreme Court will eventually step in to resolve the disagreements among the courts. It did so once already on a very similar issue and ruled against retroactivity. Might it do the same thing this time around?