Why You Should Learn to Read Court Opinions

Supreme Court Rules Immigrants Can Be Detained Indefinitely

Wow! How concerning! I’m going to post on social media about how outrageous it is that the highest court in the land is so hostile to immigrant rights! I haven’t read the opinion or anything like that, but I did read this article. The whole article. Not just the headline. Surely this means I’m prepared to comment intelligently on the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Unfortunately, it does not. The headline above is a blatant mischaracterization of what the Court actually ruled. Assuming the person who wrote the story is somewhat competent at reading legal opinions, the headline probably qualifies as a lie. But I’m more prepared to assume incompetence than malice. Reading legal documents is hard, and even very smart people tend to be bad at it. Especially when they have ideological axes to grind, which tend to make it harder to read a legal document dispassionately.

The lesson here is that you should take everything you read and hear about legal developments with a grain of salt. Law is complicated, and most people don’t understand it. Incompetent journalists are shielded from criticism because there are relatively few people willing and able to criticize them for botching stories on legal subjects. The best way to be informed is to actually read the legal opinions so that you know what’s in them. Otherwise you’re at the mercy of journalists who may have no clue what they’re talking about.

To demonstrate that the headline above is wrong, I will show you some key parts of the relevant legal opinion.

Here is a summary, which comes at the beginning of the opinion:

JUSTICE ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II, concluding that §§1225(b), 1226(a), and 1226(c) do not give detained aliens the right to periodic bond hearings during the course of their detention. The Ninth Circuit misapplied the canon of constitutional avoidance in holding otherwise. Pp. 12–31.

Note that this does not say that detained aliens do not have the right to periodic bond hearings. It merely says that Sections 1225(b), 1226(a), and 1226(c) do not give them such a right. There’s an important difference. Some rights are conferred by the Constitution, some by statute. This right, while clearly not conferred by the statute (as Justice Alito demonstrates), may very well be conferred by the Constitution. That question was not decided.

Because the Court of Appeals erroneously concluded that periodic bond hearings are required under the immigration provisions at issue here, it had no occasion to
consider respondents’ constitutional arguments on their merits. Consistent with our role as “a court of review, not of first view,” Cutter v. Wilkinson, 544 U. S. 709, 718, n. 7 (2005), we do not reach those arguments. Instead, we remand the case to the Court of Appeals to consider them in the first instance.

Here Alito explicitly says that the court has not ruled on whether periodic bond hearings are required under our law. While the statutes do not require such hearings, the Constitution may, and Alito instructs the Ninth Circuit to consider the constitutional question. It’s unclear what will happen in subsequent litigation, but the Court has made no substantive changes to our law that will adversely affect immigrant detainees. All they have done is reiterated that courts can’t rewrite statutes in order to avoid answering constitutional questions.

There’s a lot more to the opinion, but you only really need to read the previous paragraph to see that the headline at the beginning of this post is indefensible. This holds as a general rule: you don’t need to read much of an opinion to figure out what the holding is. So make sure when you read about an outrageous court ruling that the ruling is actually outrageous. Often, you will find that it has been blown out of proportion. When cases implicate hot-button issues, it’s understandable that many focus only on who “won” or “lost” while ignoring what the Court actually decided. Understandable, but not excusable. Don’t do it. Read the opinions.

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