The U.S. Supreme Court on May 7, 2020, unanimously vacated a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a case that punishes encouraging illegal immigration for financial gain. The justices found that the federal court of appeals overstepped its authority in declaring the immigration statute unconstitutionally overbroad by going beyond what the defense presented.
The case, United States v. Sineneng-Smith, concerned the criminal conviction of Evelyn Sineneng-Smith, a California-based immigration consultant who made more than $3.3 million in a visa fraud scheme. She urged her clients to apply for a labor certification that would allow them to gain lawful permanent residence in the United States even though she knew they were ineligible for the program.
Sineneng-Smith was prosecuted under 8 U.S.C. §1324, which makes it a felony to encourage a foreign national to unlawfully enter or live in the United States. In her appeal to the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, Sineneng-Smith claimed that the statute did not apply to her conduct and that its application would violate the First Amendment.
The 9th Circuit unanimously threw out Sineneng-Smith’s conviction in 2018. The three-judge panel found that statute overbroad in violation of the First Amendment, with a potentially chilling effect on legal counsel and their advice given to immigrants. The 9th Circuit relied on three amicus briefs that brought up questions not originally raised by the parties involved.
In issuing the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described the 9th Circuit’s decision as an “abuse of discretion.” She said the appeals court was at fault for concluding that the statute was overbroad for the reason that Sineneng-Smith’s lawyer had not raised the issue. The 9th Circuit’s ruling disregarded the longstanding practice of focusing only on addressing arguments presented by the parties in the case. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the 9th Circuit for reconsideration without the overbreadth argument raised by the appellate panel.