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Thursday, December 7, 2006

Doubting Thomas

The Supreme Court released one of its first opinions of the term Monday in Lopez v. Gonzales, in which Justice Thomas disagreed with all eight of his colleagues on the question of whether immigration law makes a legal permanent resident subject to deportation for simple drug possession.

The immigration law at issue calls for deportation of an alien convicted of “any felony punishable under the Controlled Substances Act” (CSA). The Government argued that this provision mandated deportation if an alien is convicted of a state law felony for simple possession -- even though simple possession is only a misdemeanor under the CSA. In an opinion by Justice Souter, all the justices except Justice Thomas rejected this argument and held that the statute plainly called for deportation only for those convicted of a drug crime that is defined as a felony under the CSA.

Justice Thomas argued, however, that the best reading of the statute was that the immigration law mandates deportation for a state law felony even if it is only punishable as a misdemeanor under the CSA. Justice Thomas's reading would, in the words of the majority, "wrench[] the expectations raised by normal English usage." Indeed, when Justice Thomas is on the other side of the fence from Justice Scalia and the Court's other conservatives -- who are usually real sticklers for plain meaning analysis -- on a question of "normal English usage," maybe Justice Thomas needs a reality check.

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