Immigration & Naturalization Service v St. Cyr, 00767

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation150 L.Ed.2d 347,121 S.Ct. 2271,533 U.S. 289
Docket Number00767
Decision Date25 June 2001

533 U.S. 289
121 S.Ct. 2271
150 L.Ed.2d 347

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.


No. 00-767


Argued April 24, 2001
June 25, 2001


Before the effective dates of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), §212(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 was interpreted to give the Attorney General broad discretion to waive deportation of resident aliens. As relevant here, the large class of aliens depending on §212(c) relief was reduced in 1996 by §401 of AEDPA, which identified a broad set of offenses for which convictions would preclude such relief; and by IIRIRA, which repealed §212(c) and replaced it with a new section excluding from the class anyone "convicted of an aggravated felony," 8 U.S.C. § 1229b(a)(3). Respondent St. Cyr, a lawful permanent United States resident, pleaded guilty to a criminal charge that made him deportable. He would have been eligible for a waiver of deportation under the immigration law in effect when he was convicted, but his removal proceedings were commenced after AEDPA's and IIRIRA's effective dates. The Attorney General claims that those Acts withdrew his authority to grant St. Cyr a waiver. The Federal District Court accepted St. Cyr's habeas corpus application and agreed that the new restrictions do not apply to removal proceedings brought against an alien who pleaded guilty to a deportable crime before their enactment. The Second Circuit affirmed.


1. Courts have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 to decide the legal issue raised by St. Cyr's habeas petition. Pp. 7-24.

(a) To prevail on its claim that AEDPA and IIRIRA stripped federal courts of jurisdiction to decide a pure question of law, as in this case, petitioner Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) must overcome both the strong presumption in favor of judicial review of administrative action and the longstanding rule requiring a clear and unambiguous statement of congressional intent to repeal habeas jurisdiction. Here, that plain statement rule draws additional reinforcement from other canons of statutory construction: First, when a statutory interpretation invokes the outer limits of Congress' power, there must be a clear indication that Congress intended that result; and second, if an otherwise acceptable construction would raise serious constitutional problems and an alternative interpretation is fairly possible, the statute must be construed to avoid such problems. Pp. 7-9.

(b) Construing the amendments at issue to preclude court review of a pure question of law would give rise to substantial constitutional questions. The Constitution's Suspension Clause, which protects the privilege of the habeas corpus writ, unquestionably requires some judicial intervention in deportation cases. Heikkila v. Barber, 345 U.S. 229, 235. Even assuming that the Clause protects only the writ as it existed in 1789, substantial evidence supports St. Cyr's claim that pure questions of law could have been answered in 1789 by a common-law judge with power to issue the writ. Thus, a serious Suspension Clause issue would arise if the 1996 statutes have withdrawn that power from federal judges and provided no adequate substitute. The need to resolve such a serious and difficult constitutional question and the desirability of avoiding that necessity reinforce the reasons for requiring a clear and unambiguous statement of constitutional intent. Pp. 9-14.

(c) To conclude that the writ is no longer available in this context would also represent a marked departure from historical immigration law practice. The writ has always been available to review the legality of executive detention, see e.g., Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651, 663, and, until the 1952 Act, a habeas action was the sole means of challenging a deportation order's legality, see, e.g., Heikkila, 345 U.S., at 235. Habeas courts have answered questions of law in alien suits challenging Executive interpretations of immigration law and questions of law that arose in the discretionary relief context. Pp. 14-17.

(d) Neither AEDPA §401(e) nor three IIRIRA provisions, 8 U.S.C. § 1252(a)(1), (a)(2)(C), and (b)(9), express a clear and unambiguous statement of Congress' intent to bar 28 U.S.C. § 2241 petitions. None of these sections even mentions §2241. Section 401(e)'s repeal of a subsection of the 1961 Act, which provided, inter alia, habeas relief for an alien in custody pursuant to a deportation order, is not sufficient to eliminate what the repealed section did not grant namely, habeas jurisdiction pursuant to §2241. See Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall. 85, 105-106. The three IIRIRA provisions do not speak with sufficient clarity to bar habeas jurisdiction. They focus on "judicial review" or "jurisdiction to review." In the immigration context, however, "judicial review" and "habeas corpus" have historically distinct meanings, with habeas courts playing a far narrower role. Pp. 17-24.

2. Section 212(c) relief remains available for aliens, like St. Cyr, whose convictions were obtained through plea agreements and who, notwithstanding those convictions, would have been eligible for §212(c) relief at the time of their plea under the law then in effect. Pp. 24-36.

(a) A statute's language must require that it be applied retroactively. Bowen v. Georgetown Univ. Hospital, 488 U.S. 204, 208. The first step in the impermissible-retroactive-effect determination is to ascertain whether Congress has directed with the requisite clarity that the law be applied retrospectively. Martin v. Hadix, 527 U.S. 343, 352. Such clarity is not shown by the comprehensiveness of IIRIRA's revision of federal immigration law, see Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S. 244, 260-261, by the promulgation of IIRIRA's effective date, see id., at 257, or by IIRIRA §309(c)(1)'s "saving provision." Pp. 24-30.

(b) The second step is to determine whether IIRIRA attaches new legal consequences to events completed before its enactment, a judgment informed and guided by considerations of fair notice, reasonable reliance, and settled expectations. Landgraf, 511 U.S., at 270. IIRIRA's elimination of §212(c) relief for people who entered into plea agreements expecting that they would be eligible for such relief clearly attaches a new disability to past transactions or considerations. Plea agreements involve a quid pro quo between a criminal defendant and the government, and there is little doubt that alien defendants considering whether to enter into such agreements are acutely aware of their convictions' immigration consequences. The potential for unfairness to people like St. Cyr is significant and manifest. Now that prosecutors have received the benefit of plea agreements, facilitated by the aliens' belief in their continued eligibility for §212(c) relief, it would be contrary to considerations of fair notice, reasonable reliance, and settled expectations to hold that IIRIRA deprives them of any possibility of such relief. The INS' argument that application of deportation law can never have retroactive effect because deportation proceedings are inherently prospective is not particularly helpful in undertaking Landgraf's analysis, and the fact that deportation is not punishment for past crimes does not mean that the Court cannot consider an alien's reasonable reliance on the continued availability of discretionary relief from deportation when deciding the retroactive effect of eliminating such relief. That §212(c) relief is discretionary does not affect the propriety of this Court's conclusion, for there is a clear difference between facing possible deportation and facing certain deportation. Pp. 30-36.229 F.3d 406, affirmed.


Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

Both the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), enacted on April 24, 1996, 110 Stat. 1214, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), enacted on September 30, 1996, 110 Stat. 3009-546, contain comprehensive amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 66 Stat. 163, as amended, 8 U.S.C. § 1101 et seq. This case raises two important questions about the impact of those amendments. The first question is a procedural one, concerning the effect of those amendments on the availability of habeas corpus jurisdiction under 28 U.S. C. §2241. The second question is a substantive one, concerning the impact of the amendments on conduct that occurred before their enactment and on the availability of discretionary relief from deportation.

Respondent, Enrico St. Cyr, is a citizen of Haiti who was admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident in 1986. Ten years later, on March 8, 1996, he pled guilty in a state court to a charge of selling a controlled substance in violation of Connecticut law. That conviction made him deportable. Under pre-AEDPA law applicable at the time of his conviction, St. Cyr would have been eligible for a waiver of deportation at the discretion of the Attorney General. However, removal proceedings against him were not commenced until April 10, 1997, after both AEDPA and IIRIRA became effective, and, as the Attorney General interprets those statutes, he no...

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