Torres v. Lynch, No. 14–1096.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustice KAGAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation194 L.Ed.2d 737,136 S.Ct. 1619
Docket NumberNo. 14–1096.
Decision Date19 May 2016
Parties Jorge Luna TORRES, Petitioner v. Loretta E. LYNCH, Attorney General.

136 S.Ct. 1619
194 L.Ed.2d 737

Jorge Luna TORRES, Petitioner
v.
Loretta E. LYNCH, Attorney General.

No. 14–1096.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Nov. 3, 2015.
Decided May 19, 2016.


Matthew L. Guadagno, New York, NY, for Petitioner.

Elaine J. Goldenberg, for Respondent.

Stuart Banner, Los Angeles, CA, Matthew L. Guadagno, New York, NY, for Petitioner.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Benjamin C. Mizer, Principal Deputy Assistant, Attorney General, Edwin S. Kneedler, Deputy Solicitor General, Rachel P. Kovner, Assistant to the Solicitor, General, Donald E. Keener, Patrick J. Glen, Attorneys, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Respondent.

Justice KAGAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA or Act) imposes certain adverse immigration consequences on an alien convicted of an "aggravated felony." The INA defines that term by listing various crimes, most of which are identified as offenses "described in" specified provisions of the federal criminal code. Immediately following that list, the Act provides that the referenced offenses are aggravated felonies irrespective of whether they are "in violation of Federal[,] State[,]" or foreign law. 108 Stat. 4322, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43). In this case, we must decide if a state crime counts as an aggravated felony when it corresponds to a specified federal offense in all ways but one—namely, the state crime lacks the interstate commerce element used in the federal statute to establish legislative jurisdiction (i.e., Congress's power to enact the law). We hold that the absence of such a jurisdictional element is immaterial: A state crime of that kind is an aggravated felony.

I

The INA makes any alien convicted of an "aggravated felony" after entering the United States deportable. See § 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii). Such an alien is also ineligible for several forms of discretionary relief, including cancellation of removal—an order allowing a deportable alien to remain in the country. See § 1229b(a)(3). And because of his felony, the alien faces expedited removal proceedings. See § 1228(a)(3)(A).

The Act defines the term "aggravated felony" by way of a long list of offenses, now codified at § 1101(a)(43). In all, that provision's 21 subparagraphs enumerate some 80 different crimes. In more than half of those subparagraphs, Congress specified the crimes by citing particular federal statutes. According to that common formulation, an offense is an aggravated felony if it is "described in," say, 18 U.S.C. § 2251 (relating to child pornography), § 922(g) (relating to unlawful gun possession), or, of particular relevance here, § 844(i) (relating to arson and explosives). 8 U.S.C. §§ 1101(a)(43)(E), (I). Most of the remaining subparagraphs refer to crimes by their generic labels, stating that an offense is an aggravated felony if, for example, it is "murder, rape, or sexual abuse of a minor." § 1101(a)(43)(A). Following the entire list of crimes, § 1101(a)(43)'s penultimate sentence reads: "The term [aggravated felony] applies to an offense described in this paragraph whether in violation of Federal or State law and applies to such an offense in violation of the law of a foreign country for which the term of imprisonment was completed within the previous 15 years." So, putting aside the 15–year curlicue, the penultimate sentence provides that an offense listed in § 1101(a)(43) is an aggravated felony whether in violation of federal, state, or foreign law.

Petitioner Jorge Luna Torres, who goes by the name George Luna, immigrated to the United States as a child and has lived here ever since as a lawful permanent resident. In 1999, he pleaded guilty to attempted arson in the third degree, in violation of New York law; he was sentenced to one day in prison and five years of probation. Seven years later, immigration officials discovered his conviction and initiated proceedings to remove him from the country. During those proceedings, Luna applied for cancellation of removal. But the Immigration Judge found him ineligible for that discretionary relief because

136 S.Ct. 1624

his arson conviction qualified as an aggravated felony. See App. to Pet. for Cert. 21a–22a.

The Board of Immigration Appeals (Board) affirmed, based on a comparison of the federal and New York arson statutes. See id., at 15a–17a. The INA, as just noted, provides that "an offense described in" 18 U.S.C. § 844(i), the federal arson and explosives statute, is an aggravated felony. Section 844(i), in turn, makes it a crime to "maliciously damage[ ] or destroy[ ], or attempt[ ] to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building [or] vehicle ... used in interstate or foreign commerce or in any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce." For its part, the New York law that Luna was convicted under prohibits "intentionally damag[ing]," or attempting to damage, "a building or motor vehicle by starting a fire or causing an explosion." N.Y. Penal Law Ann. §§ 110, 150.10 (West 2010). The state law, the Board explained, thus matches the federal statute element-for-element with one exception: The New York law does not require a connection to interstate commerce. According to the Board, that single difference did not matter because the federal statute's commerce element is "jurisdictional"—that is, its function is to establish Congress's power to legislate. See App. to Pet for Cert. 16a–17a. Given that the two laws' substantive (i.e., non-jurisdictional) elements map onto each other, the Board held, the New York arson offense is "described in" 18 U.S.C. § 844(i).

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied Luna's petition for review of the Board's ruling. See 764 F.3d 152 (2014). The court's decision added to a Circuit split over whether a state offense is an aggravated felony when it has all the elements of a listed federal crime except one requiring a connection to interstate commerce.1 We granted certiorari. 576 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 2918, 192 L.Ed.2d 923 (2015).

II

The issue in this case arises because of the distinctive role interstate commerce elements play in federal criminal law. In our federal system, "Congress cannot punish felonies generally," Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 264, 428, 5 L.Ed. 257 (1821) ; it may enact only those criminal laws that are connected to one of its constitutionally enumerated powers, such as the authority to regulate interstate commerce. As a result, most federal offenses include, in addition to substantive elements, a jurisdictional one, like the interstate commerce requirement of § 844(i). The substantive elements "primarily define[ ] the behavior that the statute calls a ‘violation’ of federal law," Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, Inc., 547 U.S. 9, 18, 126 S.Ct. 1264, 164 L.Ed.2d 10 (2006) —or, as the Model Penal Code puts the point, they relate to "the harm or evil" the law seeks to prevent, § 1.13(10). The jurisdictional element, by contrast, ties the substantive offense (here, arson) to one of Congress's constitutional powers (here, its authority over interstate commerce), thus spelling out the warrant for Congress to legislate. See id., at 17–18, 126 S.Ct. 1264 (explaining that Congress intends "such statutory terms as ‘affect commerce’ or ‘in

136 S.Ct. 1625

commerce’ ... as terms of art connecting the congressional exercise of legislative authority with the constitutional provision (here, the Commerce Clause) that grants Congress that authority").

For obvious reasons, state criminal laws do not include the jurisdictional elements common in federal statutes.2 State legislatures, exercising their plenary police powers, are not limited to Congress's enumerated powers; and so States have no reason to tie their substantive offenses to those grants of authority. See, e.g., United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 567, 115 S.Ct. 1624, 131 L.Ed.2d 626 (1995). In particular, state crimes do not contain interstate commerce elements because a State does not need such a jurisdictional hook. Accordingly, even state offenses whose substantive elements match up exactly with a federal law's will part ways with respect to interstate commerce. That slight discrepancy creates the issue here: If a state offense lacks an interstate commerce element but otherwise mirrors one of the federal statutes listed in § 1101(a)(43), does the state crime count as an aggravated felony? Or, alternatively, does the jurisdictional difference reflected in the state and federal laws preclude that result, no matter the laws' substantive correspondence?

Both parties begin with the statutory text most directly at issue, disputing when a state offense (here, arson) is "described in" an enumerated federal statute (here, 18 U.S.C. § 844(i) ). Luna, armed principally with Black's Law Dictionary, argues that "described in" means "expressed" or "set forth" in—which, he says, requires the state offense to include each one of the federal law's elements. Brief for Petitioner 15–16.3 The Government, brandishing dictionaries of its own, contends that the statutory phrase has a looser meaning—that "describing entails ... not precise replication," but "convey[ance of] an idea or impression" or of a thing's "central features." Brief for Respondent 17.4 On that view, "described in," as opposed to the more precise "defined in" sometimes found in statutes, denotes...

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  • Rad v. Attorney Gen. U.S., No. 19-1404
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • December 21, 2020
    ...element as including a mens rea requirement, conflicts with well-settled interpretative principles. See Torres v. Lynch , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 1619, 1631, 194 L.Ed.2d 737 (2016) ("[C]ourts have routinely held that a criminal defendant need not know of a federal crime's interstate comme......
  • Rehaif v. United States, No. 17-9560
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 21, 2019
    ...the defendant's conduct (normally, as here, through its Commerce Clause power). Luna Torres v. Lynch , 578 U.S. ––––, –––– – ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1619, 1630–1631, 194 L.Ed.2d 737 (2016). Because jurisdictional elements normally have nothing to do with the wrongfulness of the defendant's conduct,......
  • In re Keeley, Interim Decision #3907
    • United States
    • U.S. DOJ Board of Immigration Appeals
    • October 20, 2017
    ...a "general consensus" of the laws throughout the country in 1996. Esquivel-Quintana, 137 S. Ct. at 1572; see also Torres v. Lynch, 136 S. Ct. 1619, 1628 (2016) (reaffirming the principle that the categorical approach should not be applied so as to produce the "haphazard" result of preventin......
  • Collins v. Mnuchin, No. 17-20364
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • July 16, 2018
    ...(D.C. Cir. 2016) ; Baptist Mem’l Hosp. v. Sebelius , 603 F.3d 57, 63 (D.C. Cir. 2010) ).67 See, e.g. , Torres v. Lynch , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1619, 1626, 194 L.Ed.2d 737 (2016) (explaining that courts must "interpret the relevant words [of a statute] not in a vacuum, but with reference ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
122 cases
  • Rad v. Attorney Gen. U.S., No. 19-1404
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • December 21, 2020
    ...element as including a mens rea requirement, conflicts with well-settled interpretative principles. See Torres v. Lynch , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 1619, 1631, 194 L.Ed.2d 737 (2016) ("[C]ourts have routinely held that a criminal defendant need not know of a federal crime's interstate comme......
  • Rehaif v. United States, No. 17-9560
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 21, 2019
    ...the defendant's conduct (normally, as here, through its Commerce Clause power). Luna Torres v. Lynch , 578 U.S. ––––, –––– – ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1619, 1630–1631, 194 L.Ed.2d 737 (2016). Because jurisdictional elements normally have nothing to do with the wrongfulness of the defendant's conduct,......
  • In re Keeley, Interim Decision #3907
    • United States
    • U.S. DOJ Board of Immigration Appeals
    • October 20, 2017
    ...a "general consensus" of the laws throughout the country in 1996. Esquivel-Quintana, 137 S. Ct. at 1572; see also Torres v. Lynch, 136 S. Ct. 1619, 1628 (2016) (reaffirming the principle that the categorical approach should not be applied so as to produce the "haphazard" result of preventin......
  • Collins v. Mnuchin, No. 17-20364
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • July 16, 2018
    ...(D.C. Cir. 2016) ; Baptist Mem’l Hosp. v. Sebelius , 603 F.3d 57, 63 (D.C. Cir. 2010) ).67 See, e.g. , Torres v. Lynch , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1619, 1626, 194 L.Ed.2d 737 (2016) (explaining that courts must "interpret the relevant words [of a statute] not in a vacuum, but with reference ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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