June 12, 2017

Supreme Court Decides Sessions v. Morales-Santana

On June 12, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Sessions v. Morales-Santana, No. 15-1191, in which it held that an exception to the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq., that provides a benefit to children of unwed, non-U.S. citizen mothers but not unwed, non-U.S. citizen fathers violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq., establishes a general method for a child born abroad to become a U.S. citizen at birth when one parent is a U.S. citizen who was physically present in the U.S. for a period of years and the other is not. The Act also creates an exception and shortens the durational requirement where the child’s mother is an unmarried U.S. citizen. 8 U.S.C. § 1409(c).

Respondent Luis Ramón Morales-Santana moved to the U.S. at age 13. To avoid deportation, he argued that he was a U.S. citizen because his father, though not satisfying the terms of the Act’s general rule, resided in the U.S. long enough to meet the duration requirement of the Act’s exception. The Government rejected Morales-Santana’s argument and declined to recognize him as a U.S. citizen because the Act’s exception, as written, applies only to unwed mothers.

After the immigration judge rejected Morale-Santana’s claim to citizenship in 2000, Morales-Santana moved to reopen the proceedings in 2010 and argued that the Government’s rejection of his citizenship claim violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Board of Immigration Appeals denied Morales-Santana’s motion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed.

The United States Supreme Court first confirmed that Morales-Santana had standing to pursue the equal-protection claim on behalf of his father’s right to equal treatment under the Act because Morales-Santana had a close relationship with his father and the father’s prior death prevented the father from pursuing the claims himself. 

Turning to the merits of Morales-Santana’s equal-protection claim, the Court found that the Act’s exception drew a gender-based classification and thus deserved heightened scrutiny. It required the Government to show that the statute’s classification served “important [presently existing] governmental objectives” and was “substantially related” to achieving those objectives.

The Court then rejected both of the “important objectives” that the Government advanced. First, the Court concluded that the Government’s objective of “ensur[ing] that a child born abroad has a connection to the [U.S.] of sufficient strength to warrant conferral of citizenship at birth,” was impermissibly based on a discriminatory gender-based characterization and that the statute was not substantially related to achieving that objective. It also dismissed as unsupported by any evidence the Government’s argument that the statute was intended “to reduce the risk that a foreign-born child of a U. S. citizen would be born stateless,” and it confirmed that the Government may not support a gender-based classification with a post hoc, theoretical purpose. The Court recognized that there previously may have been justifications for the Act’s gender-based classification, but it reaffirmed that laws, like the Act’s exception, grounded in “the obsolescing view that unwed fathers are invariably less qualified and entitled than mothers to take responsibility for nonmarital children” serve “no important governmental interest.” Concluding that the Government had not supplied an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for the Act’s classification, the Court held that the Act’s gender-based exception violates the Equal Protection Clause.

The Court then turned to fashioning relief. It confirmed that where a statute is found to violate the Equal Protection Clause, a court may ensure equal treatment by either nullifying the statute and ordering that it not apply to any class, or extending the statute’s benefits to those originally deprived of them. It instructed that the form of relief depends on the legislature’s intent and that, ordinarily, extension is the appropriate remedy. It clarified, however, that where, as here, that relief would broaden the application of an exception to a general rule, courts should assess (a) “the intensity of commitment” to the main rule, rather than the exception, and (b) “the degree of potential disruption of the statutory scheme that would occur by extension as opposed to abrogation.” Finding that the Act’s general rule is important and the risk that extension of the Act’s exception would disrupt the Act’s scheme was high, the Court struck, rather than extended, the Act’s exception. 

The Court thus affirmed in part and reversed in part the Second Circuit’s opinion and remanded the case for further proceedings. It directed that “[g]oing forward, Congress may address the issue and settle on a uniform prescription that neither favors nor disadvantages any person on the basis of gender” and that, in the interim, the Act’s general requirements would “apply, prospectively, to children born to unwed U. S.-citizen mothers.”

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Thomas filed a concurring in the judgment in part, which Justice Alito joined. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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