SCOTUS Issues Opinions on Immigration, Tribal Court Jurisdiction and Affirmative Action

By Kenrya Rankin Jun 23, 2016

The United States Supreme Court just released a flurry of decisions as it nears its June 30 term close. Among them were rulings on four cases with special relevance to people of color: Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, United States v. Texas, Dollar General Corp. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and Mathis v. United States.

Here is a breakdown of what the Court decided today (June 23):

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

In this case, Abigail Fisher challenged the University of Texas at Austin’s policy of considering race in the admissions process. In December 2015, the Court took up Fisher’s case for the second time, after sending it back to the lower courts to decide if the school actually needed to factor in race to build a diverse class. When they both decided that affirmative action was indeed necessary, Fisher appealed to SCOTUS again.

Today, the justices voted 4-3 in favor of affirming the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s endorsement of affirmative action. Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the opinion, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Roberts dissented. Justice Elena Kagan sat out the case, as she worked on the case as solicitor general. And Justice Antonin Scalia famously sat for the arguments, but died before the decision.

From the opinion of the court:

A university is in large part defined by those intangible “qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness.” Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U. S. 629, 634 (1950). Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission. But still, it remains an enduring challenge to our Nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.

The University of Texas at Austin has a special opportunity to learn and to teach. The University now has at its disposal valuable data about the manner in which different approaches to admissions may foster diversity or instead dilute it. The University must continue to use this data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary.

The Court’s affirmance of the University’s admissions policy today does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement. It is the University’s ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies.

Read the full opinion here.

United States v. Texas

In this case, which was argued in April, the Court sought to determine if Texas and 25 other states were right when they charged that the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program is illegal. President Barack Obama announced the action—which would let some immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for five-plus years with no felonies or repeated misdemeanors apply for work permits—in November 2014. But the states countered that it was an overreach of his executive power, filing injunctions to prevent it from being implemented. Specifically, officials from the states argue that they will be harmed if they have to shoulder the cost of creating driver’s licenses for the impacted immigrants. The Court agreed to decide if both DAPA and an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program were within Obama’s power, if the states could actually sue the federal government for the way it chooses to enforce federal laws, if DAPA and DACA are themselves illegal programs because citizens did not have a chance to react to the policies before they were installed, and if the president failed to execute federal laws “faithfully,” which would be a violation of the constitution.

Today, the Court was equally divided on the issue, as it is operating as an eight-member body following the death of Scalia. The 4-4 deadlock means that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s ruling that blocked DAPA and the DACA expansion will remain in place, leaving an estimated five million undocumented immigrants open to deportation  and denying them a legal way to work in this country.

Rocio Saenz, EVP of the Service Employees International Union, called the decision “an injustice” in a statement:

This is far from over. While the Supreme Court split decision failed to deliver justice for all of America’s families, our fight does not stop here. This is personal…. We will vote, we will march, and we’ll hold those accountable at the ballot box who have stood in the way of families with their anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. Today is an injustice, but tomorrow we will vote.

Read the full opinion here.

Dollar General Corp. v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians

The Court was charged with deciding if Native tribal courts have jurisdiction when it comes to civil tort claims brought against people and entities that are not members of the tribe. In this particular case, a 13-year-old member of the Choctaw tribe accused Dale Townsend, a manager at a Dollar General store on the reservation, of sexually molesting him while he was an intern at the store. His family filed a lawsuit against the man and the store, arguing that the store was liable of its employee’s actions. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi subsequently denied Dollar General’s request to dismiss the charges, finding that the company consented to tribal jurisdiction when it signed its lease in 2000. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals similarly refused to challenge the jurisdiction of the tribal court.

With today’s 4-4 split, the Court upheld the lower court’s ruling that the tribal court maintains jurisdiction over nonmembers on tribal land. Tribal Chief Phyliss J. Anderson issued a statement today via Facebook, saying “This is a historic day for our Choctaw Tribe and a day every Native American should celebrate.”

Read the full opinion here.

Mathis v. United States

Here, the Court considered arguments in a case that impacts both criminal justice reform and immigration policy. The question before the court was: What state convictions quality for federal mandatory minimum sentences and for deportation pursuant to current immigration law? In this case, Richard Mathis was convicted of five burglaries in Iowa. When he was later prosecuted on federal charges for owning a rifle as a felon, he was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison, per the Armed Career Criminal Act. He appeal, arguing that the federal court was bound to follow the state’s precedent of categorizing his convictions, which did not strictly align with the narrower categories covered by the ACCA and would therefore have resulted in a lesser sentence.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the ruling of the lower court, but today, the Justices voted 5-3 to overturn that decision. In doing so, they made it clear that noncitizens will not be deported for crimes that do not align with those the federal government ties to immigration consequence. Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas and Sotomayor. Justices Kennedy and Thomas filed concurring options, and Justices Breyer, Ginsberg and Alito dissented. From the court’s opinion:

Our precedents make this a straightforward case. For more than 25 years, we have repeatedly made clear that application of ACCA involves, and involves only, comparing elements. Courts must ask whether the crime of conviction is the same as, or narrower than, the relevant generic offense. They may not ask whether the defend- ant’s conduct—his particular means of committing the crime—falls within the generic definition. And that rule does not change when a statute happens to list possible alternative means of commission: Whether or not made explicit, they remain what they ever were—just the facts, which ACCA (so we have held, over and over) does not care about.

Some have raised concerns about this line of decisions, and suggested to Congress that it reconsider how ACCA is written. See, e.g., Chambers v. United States, 555 U. S. 122, 133 (2009) (ALITO, J., concurring in judgment); Descamps, 570 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 2) (KENNEDY, J., concurring). But whether for good or for ill, the elements-based approach remains the law. And we will not introduce inconsistency and arbitrariness into our ACCA deci-sions by here declining to follow its requirements. Everything this Court has ever said about ACCA runs counter to the Government’s position. That alone is sufficient reason to reject it: Coherence has a claim on the law.

Because the elements of Iowa’s burglary law are broader than those of generic burglary, Mathis’s convictions under that law cannot give rise to an ACCA sentence. We accordingly reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Read the full opinion here.