United States v. Sineneng-Smith

Decision Date07 May 2020
Docket NumberNo. 19-67,19-67
Parties UNITED STATES, Petitioner v. Evelyn SINENENG-SMITH
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Noel J. Francisco, Solicitor General, Brian A. Benczkowski, Assistant Attorney General, Eric J. Feigin, Matthew Guarnieri, Assistants to the Solicitor General, Scott A.C. Meisler, Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Daniel F. Cook, Bodega Bay, CA, Alan E. Schoenfeld, Emily J. Barnet, Wilmer Cutler Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP, New York, NY, Beth C. Neitzel, Wilmer Cutler Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP, Washington, DC, Mark C. Fleming, Eric L. Hawkins, Vinay Nayak, Wilmer Cutler Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP, Boston, MA, Thomas G. Sprankling, Wilmer Cutler Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP, Palo Alto, CA, for Respondent.

Justice GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns 8 U.S.C. § 1324, which makes it a federal felony to "encourag[e] or induc[e] an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law." § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv). The crime carries an enhanced penalty if "done for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain." § 1324(a)(1)(B)(i).1

Respondent Evelyn Sineneng-Smith operated an immigration consulting firm in San Jose, California. She was indicted for multiple violations of § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) and (B)(i). Her clients, most of them from the Philippines, worked without authorization in the home health care industry in the United States. Between 2001 and 2008, Sineneng-Smith assisted her clients in applying for a "labor certification" that once allowed certain aliens to adjust their status to that of lawful permanent resident permitted to live and work in the United States. § 1255(i)(1)(B)(ii).

There was a hindrance to the efficacy of Sineneng-Smith's advice and assistance. To qualify for the labor-certification dispensation she promoted to her clients, an alien had to be in the United States on December 21, 2000, and apply for certification before April 30, 2001. § 1255(i)(1)(C). Sineneng-Smith knew her clients did not meet the application-filing deadline; hence, their applications could not put them on a path to lawful residence.2 Nevertheless, she charged each client $5,900 to file an application with the Department of Labor and another $900 to file with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. For her services in this regard, she collected more than $3.3 million from her unwitting clients.

In the District Court, Sineneng-Smith urged unsuccessfully, inter alia , that the above-cited provisions, properly construed, did not cover her conduct, and if they did, they violated the Petition and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment as applied. See Motion to Dismiss in No. 10–cr–414 (ND Cal.), pp. 7–13, 20–25; Motion for Judgt. of Acquittal in No. 10–cr–414 (ND Cal.), pp. 14–19, 20–25. She was convicted on two counts under § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) and (B)(i), and on other counts (filing false tax returns and mail fraud) she does not now contest. Throughout the District Court proceedings and on appeal, she was represented by competent counsel.

On appeal from the § 1324 convictions to the Ninth Circuit, both on brief and at oral argument, Sineneng-Smith essentially repeated the arguments she earlier presented to the District Court. See Brief for Appellant in No. 15–10614 (CA9), pp. 11–28. The case was then moved by the appeals panel onto a different track. Instead of adjudicating the case presented by the parties, the appeals court named three amici and invited them to brief and argue issues framed by the panel, including a question Sineneng-Smith herself never raised earlier: "[W]hether the statute of conviction is overbroad ... under the First Amendment." App. 122–124. In the ensuing do over of the appeal, counsel for the parties were assigned a secondary role. The Ninth Circuit ultimately concluded, in accord with the invited amici 's arguments, that § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) is unconstitutionally overbroad. 910 F.3d 461, 485 (2018). The Government petitioned for our review because the judgment of the Court of Appeals invalidated a federal statute. Pet. for Cert. 24. We granted the petition. 588 U.S. ––––, 140 S.Ct. 36, 204 L.Ed.2d 1194 (2019).

As developed more completely hereinafter, we now hold that the appeals panel departed so drastically from the principle of party presentation as to constitute an abuse of discretion. We therefore vacate the Ninth Circuit's judgment and remand the case for an adjudication of the appeal attuned to the case shaped by the parties rather than the case designed by the appeals panel.


In our adversarial system of adjudication, we follow the principle of party presentation. As this Court stated in Greenlaw v. United States , 554 U.S. 237, 128 S.Ct. 2559, 171 L.Ed.2d 399 (2008), "in both civil and criminal cases, in the first instance and on appeal ..., we rely on the parties to frame the issues for decision and assign to courts the role of neutral arbiter of matters the parties present." Id ., at 243, 128 S.Ct. 2559. In criminal cases, departures from the party presentation principle have usually occurred "to protect a pro se litigant's rights." Id. , at 244, 128 S.Ct. 2559 ; see, e.g. , Castro v. United States , 540 U.S. 375, 381–383, 124 S.Ct. 786, 157 L.Ed.2d 778 (2003) (affirming courts' authority to recast pro se litigants' motions to "avoid an unnecessary dismissal" or "inappropriately stringent application of formal labeling requirements, or to create a better correspondence between the substance of a pro se motion's claim and its underlying legal basis" (citation omitted)). But as a general rule, our system "is designed around the premise that [parties represented by competent counsel] know what is best for them, and are responsible for advancing the facts and argument entitling them to relief." Id. , at 386, 124 S.Ct. 786 (Scalia, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment).3

In short: "[C]ourts are essentially passive instruments of government." United States v. Samuels , 808 F.2d 1298, 1301 (CA8 1987) (Arnold, J., concurring in denial of reh'g en banc). They "do not, or should not, sally forth each day looking for wrongs to right. [They] wait for cases to come to [them], and when [cases arise, courts] normally decide only questions presented by the parties." Ibid.

The party presentation principle is supple, not ironclad. There are no doubt circumstances in which a modest initiating role for a court is appropriate. See, e.g. , Day v. McDonough , 547 U.S. 198, 202, 126 S.Ct. 1675, 164 L.Ed.2d 376 (2006) (federal court had "authority, on its own initiative," to correct a party's "evident miscalculation of the elapsed time under a statute [of limitations]" absent "intelligent waiver").4 But this case scarcely fits that bill. To explain why that is so, we turn first to the proceedings in the District Court.

In July 2010, a grand jury returned a multicount indictment against Sineneng-Smith, including three counts of violating § 1324, three counts of mail fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341, and two counts of willfully subscribing to a false tax return in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7206(1). Sineneng-Smith pleaded guilty to the tax-fraud counts, App. to Pet. for Cert. 78a–79a, and did not pursue on appeal the two mail-fraud counts on which she was ultimately convicted. We therefore concentrate this description on her defenses against the § 1324 charges.

Before trial, Sineneng-Smith moved to dismiss the § 1324 counts. Motion to Dismiss in No. 10–cr–414 (ND Cal.). She asserted first that the conduct with which she was charged—advising and assisting aliens about labor certifications—is not proscribed by § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) and (B)(i). Being hired to file lawful applications on behalf of aliens already residing in the United States, she maintained, did not "encourage" or "induce" them to remain in this country. Id. , at 7–13. Next, she urged, alternatively, that clause (iv) is unconstitutionally vague and therefore did not provide fair notice that her conduct was prohibited, id. , at 13–18, or should rank as a content-based restraint on her speech, id. , at 22–24. She further asserted that she has a right safeguarded to her by the Petition and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment to file applications on her clients' behalf. Id., at 20–25. Nowhere did she so much as hint that the statute is infirm, not because her own conduct is protected, but because it trenches on the First Amendment sheltered expression of others.

The District Court denied the motion to dismiss, holding that Sineneng-Smith could "encourag[e]" noncitizens to remain in the country, within the meaning of § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv), "[b]y suggesting to [them] that the applications she would make on their behalf, in exchange for their payments, would allow them to eventually obtain legal permanent residency in the United States." App. to Pet. for Cert. 73a. The court also rejected Sineneng-Smith's constitutional arguments, reasoning that she was prosecuted, not for filing clients' applications, but for falsely representing to noncitizens that her efforts, for which she collected sizable fees, would enable them to gain lawful status. Id. , at 75a.

After a 12-day trial, the jury found Sineneng-Smith guilty on the three § 1324 counts charged in the indictment, along with the three mail-fraud counts. App. 118–121. Sineneng-Smith then moved for a judgment of acquittal. She renewed, "almost verbatim," the arguments made in her motion to dismiss, App. to Pet. for Cert. 65a, and the District Court rejected those arguments "[f]or the same reasons as the court expressed in its order denying Sineneng-Smith's motion to dismiss," ibid . She simultaneously urged that the evidence did not support the verdicts. Motion for Judgt. of Acquittal in No. 10–cr–414 (ND Cal.), at 1–14. The...

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