June 15, 2015

Supreme Court Decides Mata v. Lynch

On June 15, 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided Mata v. Lynch, No. 14-185, holding that federal courts of appeals have jurisdiction to review the Board of Immigration Appeals’ (Board) rejection of an alien’s motion to reopen his removal proceedings, regardless of the Board’s reason for denying the motion, and even where the Board’s rejection is accompanied by a decision not to exercise its sua sponte authority to reopen the proceedings.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), after an immigration judge orders that an alien be removed from the United States, the alien may appeal to the Board. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1229a(a)(1), (c)(5). The alien also has a statutory right to file one motion to reopen the removal proceedings, but he must file that motion within 90 days of the final removal order. 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(c)(7). The Board also has the authority to reopen the removal proceedings sua sponte at any time. 8 C.F.R. § 1003.2(a).  

An immigration judge ordered Noel Reyes Mata, a Mexican citizen, removed after Mata was convicted of assault in Texas. Mata’s attorney filed a notice of appeal with the Board, but never submitted a brief, so the Board dismissed the appeal. More than 90 days later, Mata filed a motion to reopen his case, and argued that his motion to reopen was not barred by the 90-day time limit because his original lawyer’s ineffective assistance constituted “exceptional circumstances” excusing his lateness. The Board reaffirmed that it had the authority to equitably toll the 90-day motion deadline in cases involving ineffective representation, but went on to hold that Mata was not entitled to equitable tolling because he couldn’t show prejudice from his attorney’s deficient performance, so his motion was untimely. The Board also declined to reopen the case on its own motion (i.e., sua sponte).

Mata appealed the Board’s denial of his motion to reopen to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that he was entitled to equitable tolling. The Fifth Circuit declined to consider the appeal, holding that an alien’s request to the Board for equitable tolling on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel “is construed as an invitation for the [Board] to exercise its discretion to reopen the removal proceeding sua sponte,” and that under circuit precedent the court had no jurisdiction to review the Board’s refusal to exercise its sua sponte power to reopen cases. The Fifth Circuit therefore dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. 

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Fifth Circuit had jurisdiction over Mata’s appeal from the denial of his motion to reopen his removal proceedings. The Court reaffirmed that federal appellate courts generally have jurisdiction when an alien appeals from the Board’s denial of a motion to reopen a removal proceeding, and then held that “the reason for the [Board’s] denial makes no difference to the jurisdictional issue.” Thus, federal appellate courts have jurisdiction whether the Board denies the alien’s motion to reopen because it is untimely or because it falls short in other respects. And the Board’s statement that it would not exercise its sua sponte authority to reopen the case does not change things either. The Court assumed for purposes of argument (but did not decide) that federal appellate courts lack jurisdiction to review the Board’s refusal to exercise sua sponte authority to reopen a case, but held lack of jurisdiction over that decision does not affect appellate jurisdiction over the decision on the alien’s request to reopen. The Court also rejected the argument that because the INA categorically precludes equitable tolling, an alien’s request for equitable tolling should be reconstrued as a request for the exercise of the Board’s discretionary authority to reopen, explaining that the availability of equitable tolling goes to the merits of the appeal, not whether the circuit court has jurisdiction in the first place.

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsberg, Breyer, Alito, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.

Download Opinion of Court

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