Reno v. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 525 U.S. 471 (1998)

Author: Justice Souter

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Reno v. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 525 U.S. 471 (1998)

JUSTICE SOUTER, dissenting.

The unhappy history of the provisions at issue in this case reveals that Congress, apparently unintentionally, enacted legislation that simultaneously grants and denies the right of judicial review to certain aliens who were in deportation proceedings before April 1, 1997. Finding no trump in the two mutually exclusive statutory provisions, I would invoke the principle of constitutional doubt and apply the provision that avoids a potential constitutional difficulty. Because the Court today instead purports to resolve the contradiction with a reading that strains the meaning of the text beyond what I think it can bear, I respectfully dissent.


The first of the contradictory provisions is put in play by § 306(c)(1) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), 110 Stat. 3009-612, as amended by § 2 of the Act of Oct. 11, 1996, 110 Stat. 3657, which makes new 8 U.S.C. § 1252(g) (1994 ed., Supp. III) immediately applicable as of the date of its enactment (i.e., October 11, 1996) to "claims arising from all past, pending, or future" removal proceedings. Subsection (g), for its part, bars review in any court of "the decision or action by the Attorney General to commence proceedings, adjudicate cases, or execute removal orders against any alien," except as provided in § 1252. The exception, however, is cold comfort to applicants for review of proceedings pending when IIRIRA took effect, because the rest of § 1252 is inapplicable to "an alien who is in exclusion or deportation proceedings" on the effective date of IIRIRA, April 1, 1997. Section 309(c)(1)(A) of IIRIRA, 110 Stat. 3009-625, as amended by § 2 of the Act of Oct. 11, 1996, 110 Stat. 3657. Hence, by operation of § 306(c)(1), it would appear that aliens who did not obtain judicial review as of the enactment date of October 11, 1996, and who were in proceedings as of IIRIRA’s effective date of April 1, 1997, can never obtain judicial review of "the decision or action by the Attorney General to commence proceedings, adjudicate cases, or execute removal orders against any alien" in any forum. In short, § 306(c)(1) appears to bar members of this class of aliens from any review of any aspect of their claims.

Yet § 306(c)(1) is not the only statutory provision applicable to aliens in proceedings before April 1, 1997. Section 309(c)(1)(B) provides that, in the case of aliens in proceedings before the effective date, "the proceedings (including judicial review thereof) shall continue to be conducted without regard to [new § 1252]." The parenthetical expression in this section specifically provides that the judicial review available to aliens before the April 1, 1997, effective date of § 1252 continues to be available even after the effective date to aliens who were already in proceedings before the effective date. In other words, the terms of § 309(c)(1)(B) preserve preexisting judicial review for the self-same class of aliens to whom § 306(c)(1) bars review.

We do not have to dwell on how this contradiction arose.{1} What matters for our purposes is that § 306(c)(1) and § 309(c)(1) cannot be reconciled. Either aliens in proceedings on April 1, 1997, have no access to judicial review, or else they have the access available under the law that applied before § 1252 came into effect.{2}

The Court acknowledges the existence of an "interpretive anomaly," ante at 478, and attempts to avoid the contradiction by a creative interpretation of § 1252(g). It reads the § 1252(g) bar to review of "the decision or action by the Attorney General to commence proceedings, adjudicate cases, or execute removal orders against any alien" to "appl[y] only to three discrete actions that the Attorney General may take," ante at 482. The Court claims that a bar to review of commencement of proceedings, adjudication of cases, and execution of removal orders does not bar review of every sort of claim, because "many other decisions or actions that are part of the deportation process," ibid., remain unaffected by the limitation of § 1252(g). On this reading, the Court says, review of some aspects of the Attorney General’s possible actions regarding aliens in proceedings before April 1, 1997, is preserved, even though the rest of § 1252 does not apply. The actions that still may be reviewed when challenged by aliens already in proceedings before the effective date of IIRIRA include, the Court tells us,

decisions to open an investigation, to surveil the suspected violator, to issue an order to show cause, to include various provisions in the final order that is the product of adjudication, and to refuse reconsideration of that order.


The Court’s interpretation, it seems to me, parses the language of subsection (g) too finely for the business at hand. The chronological march from commencing proceedings, through adjudicating cases, to executing removal orders surely gives a reasonable first impression of speaking exhaustively. While it is grammatically possible to read the series without total inclusion, ibid., the implausibility of doing this appears the moment one asks why Congress would have wanted to preserve interim review of the particular set of decisions by the Attorney General to which the Court adverts. It is hard to imagine that Congress meant to bar aliens already in proceedings before the effective date from challenging the commencement of proceedings against them, but to permit the same aliens to challenge, say, the decision of the Attorney General to open an investigation of them or to issue a show-cause order. Nor is there a plausible explanation of why the exclusivity provisions of subsection (g) should not apply after the effective date to review of decisions to open investigations or invite cause to be shown.

The Court offers two arguments in support of its ingenious reading, neither of which suffices to convince me of its plausibility. First, the Court suggests that Congress could not have intended the words "commence proceedings, adjudicate cases, and execute removal orders" to refer to all deportation-related claims, because this would require these parts of deportation proceedings to stand for the whole of the process, and such a use of language "is incompatible with the need for precision in legislative drafting." Ibid. But without delving into the wisdom of using rhetorical figures in statutory drafting, one can still conclude naturally that Congress employed three subject headings to bar review of all those stages in the deportation process to which challenges might conceivably be brought. Indeed, each one of the Court’s examples of reviewable actions of the Attorney General falls comfortably into one or another of the three phases of the deportation process captured under the headings of commencement, adjudication, and removal. The decisions to open an investigation or subject an alien to surveillance belong to the commencement of proceedings (which presumably differs from adjudication, separately mentioned); issuing an order to show cause, composing the final order, and refusing reconsideration all easily belong to an adjudication. Far from employing synecdoche, Congress used familiar, general terms to refer to the familiar stages of the exclusion process, and the acceptability of interpreting the three items to exclude others requires considerable determination to indulge in such a reading.

Second, the Court explains that Congress had "good reason," ante at 483, to focus on commencement, adjudication, and execution, because these are distinct stages of the deportation process at which the Executive was in the habit of exercising its discretion to defer action. To show the existence of this practice, the Court quotes a passage from a treatise on immigration law, which says descriptively that "`the INS may decline to institute proceedings, terminate proceedings, or decline to execute a final order of deportation,’" ante at 13 (quoting 6 C. Gordon, S. Mailman, & S. Yale-Loehr, Immigration Law and Procedure § 72.03[2][h] (1998)). The treatise also says that the courts have sometimes entertained efforts to challenge the refusal to exercise discretion, ante at 485. The Court notes, perfectly plausibly, that the purpose of § 1252(g) may well have been to bar such challenges. But this is hardly a smoking gun. The passage in question uses the notions of instituting and terminating proceedings, and declining to execute final removal orders, in the very same inclusive sense that § 1252(g) does. The treatise says that "`[a] case may be selected for deferred action at any stage of the administrative process,’" ante at 484, by which its authors evidently meant to say simply that from time to time the Executive exercises discretion at various points in the process, and that some courts have considered challenges to the failure to exercise discretion. This is no support for the Court’s argument that Congress meant to bar review only of the "discrete" actions of commencement, adjudication, or execution.

Because I cannot subscribe to the Court’s attempt to render the inclusive series incomplete, I have to confront the irreconcilable contradiction between § 306(c)(1) and § 309(c)(1). Both context and principle point me to the conclusion that the latter provision must prevail over the former. First, it seems highly improbable that Congress actually intended to raise a permanent barrier to judicial review for aliens in proceedings ongoing on April 1, 1997. Judicial review was available under old 8 U.S.C. § 1105a to those aliens whose proceedings concluded before the enactment of the amended § 306(c)(1) on October 11, 1996, and judicial review of a different scope is also available under new 8 U.S.C. § 1252 (1994 ed., Supp. III) to those whose proceedings commenced after the effective date of IIRIRA, April 1, 1997. There is no reason whatever to believe that Congress intentionally singled out for especially harsh treatment the hapless aliens who were in proceedings during the interim. This point is underscored by transitional § 309(c)(4)(A), which expressly applies subsections (a) and (c) of old 8 U.S.C. § 1105a (but not subsection (b) thereof) to judicial review of final orders of deportation or exclusion filed more than 30 days after the date of enactment. Section 309(c)(4)(A), in other words, contemplates judicial review of final orders of exclusion against aliens who were in proceedings as of the date of enactment.

Second, complete preclusion of judicial review of any kind for claims brought by aliens subject to proceedings for removal would raise the serious constitutional question whether Congress may block every remedy for enforcing a constitutional right. See Bowen v. Michigan Academy of Family Physicians, 476 U.S. 667, 681, n. 12 (1986). The principle of constitutional doubt counsels against adopting the interpretation that raises this question.

[W]here a statute is susceptible of two constructions, by one of which grave and doubtful constitutional questions arise and by the other of which such questions are avoided, our duty is to adopt the latter.

United States ex rel. Attorney General v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 213 U.S. 366, 408 (1909); see also United States v. Jin Fuey Moy, 241 U.S. 394, 401 (1916). Here, constitutional doubt lends considerable weight to the view that § 309(c)(1) ought to prevail over § 306(c)(1) and preserve judicial review under the law as it was before the enactment of IIRIRA for aliens in proceedings before April 1, 1997. While I do not lightly reach the conclusion that § 306(c)(1) is essentially without force, my respect for Congress’s intent in enacting § 309(c)(1) is necessarily balanced by respect for Congress’s intent in enacting § 306(c)(1). No canon of statutory construction familiar to me specifically addresses the situation in which two simultaneously enacted provisions of the same statute flatly contradict one another.{3} We are, of course, bound to avoid such a dilemma if we can, by glimpsing some uncontradicted meaning for each provision. But the attempt to salvage an application for each must have some stopping place, and the Court’s attempt here seems to me to go beyond that point. In this anomalous situation where the two statutory provisions are fundamentally at odds, constitutional doubt will have to serve as the best guide to breaking the tie.

Because I think that § 309(c)(1) applies to aliens in proceedings before April 1, 1997, I think it applies to respondents in this case. The law governing their proceedings and subsequent judicial review should therefore be the law prevailing before IIRIRA. That law, in my view, afforded respondents an opportunity to litigate their claims before the District Court. Former 8 U.S.C. § 1105a(a) governed "judicial review of all final orders of deportation." For actions that fell outside the scope of this provision, an "alien’s remedies would, of course, ordinarily lie first in an action brought in an appropriate district court." Cheng Fan Kwok v. INS, 392 U.S. 206, 210 (1968). In McNary v. Haitian Refugee Center, Inc., 498 U.S. 479 (1991), we applied this principle in finding a right of action before the district court in a constitutional challenge to procedures of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Respondents’ challenge to the constitutionality of their prosecution was filed prior to the entry of a final order of deportation, and so district court jurisdiction was appropriate here.{4}


The approach I would take in this case avoids a troubling problem that the Court chooses to address despite the fact that it was not briefed before the Court: whether selective prosecution claims have vitality in the immigration context. Of course, in principle, the Court’s approach itself obviates the need to address that issue: if respondents’ suit is barred by § 1252(g), the Court need not address the merits of their claims. Yet the Court goes on, in what I take as dictum,{5} to argue that the alien’s interest in avoiding selective treatment in the deportation context "is less compelling than in criminal prosecutions," ante at 491, either because the alien is not being punished for an act he has committed or because the presence of an alien in the United States is, unlike a past crime, "an ongoing violation of United States law," ibid. (emphasis deleted). While the distinctions are clear, the difference is not. The interest in avoiding selective enforcement of the criminal law, shared by the government and the accused, is that prosecutorial discretion not be exercised to violate constitutionally prescribed guaranties of equality or liberty. See United States v. Armstrong, 517 U.S. 456, 464-465 (1996); Wayte v. United States, 470 U.S. 598, 608 (1985). This interest applies to the like degree in immigration litigation, and is not attenuated because the deportation is not a penalty for a criminal act or because the violation is ongoing. If authorities prosecute only those tax evaders against whom they bear some prejudice or whose protected liberties they wish to curtail, the ongoing nature of the nonpayers’ violation does not obviate the interest against selective prosecution.

No doubt more could be said with regard to the theory of selective prosecution in the immigration context, and I do not assume that the Government would lose the argument. That this is so underscores the danger of addressing an unbriefed issue that does not call for resolution even on the Court’s own logic. Because I am unconvinced by the Court’s statutory interpretation, and because I do not think the Court should reach the selective prosecution issue, I respectfully dissent.


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Chicago: Souter, "Souter, J., Dissenting," Reno v. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 525 U.S. 471 (1998) in 525 U.S. 471 525 U.S. 502–525 U.S. 511. Original Sources, accessed August 17, 2019,

MLA: Souter. "Souter, J., Dissenting." Reno v. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 525 U.S. 471 (1998), in 525 U.S. 471, pp. 525 U.S. 502–525 U.S. 511. Original Sources. 17 Aug. 2019.

Harvard: Souter, 'Souter, J., Dissenting' in Reno v. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 525 U.S. 471 (1998). cited in 1998, 525 U.S. 471, pp.525 U.S. 502–525 U.S. 511. Original Sources, retrieved 17 August 2019, from