SCOTUS: Statutory Rape of 16-Year-Olds Not Enough for Deportation

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The Supreme Court of the United States decided unanimously Tuesday that statutory rape does not qualify as an “aggravated felony” triggering deportation when the victim is 16 or 17-years-old in Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions.

As a result of the 8-0 decision, legal aliens can no longer lose their right to stay in the United States solely for having non-forcible sex with minors 16 or older, even if that sex is a felony in the state where they reside.

Age-of-consent laws vary by state between 16 and 18 years. California, where legal permanent resident Juan Esquivel-Quintana was convicted, sets the bar at 18-years-old with a three-year difference-in-age exception. Thus his having nominally consensual sex with a 17-year-old when he was 21 constituted statutory rape. After he pleaded guilty to having done so in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings against Quintana based on the Immigration and Nationality Act’s (INA) inclusion of  “sexual abuse of a minor” on the list of aggravated felonies which qualify aliens convicted of them for removal.

While the INA does not describe exactly which state offenses qualify as “sexual abuse  of a minor,” the immigration judge who heard Quintana’s removal case held that his statutory rape conviction met the standard and ordered him deported back to his native Mexico. Both the Department of Justice’s highest administrative immigration authority, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit refused to upset that determination.

The Supreme Court, however, reversed, holding that, because it includes otherwise consensual sex with 16 and 17-year-olds based solely on the age of victim, California’s statutory rape law does not meet a “generic” definition of sexual abuse of a minor.

Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinion for the court cites the federal definition of sexual abuse of a minor, which only applies to minors under 16 for otherwise consensual sex, the age of consent in the majority of states, which is also 16, and several legal dictionary definitions to reach the conclusion that otherwise consensual sex between adults and 16 and 17-year-olds is not what Congress meant when they included sexual abuse of a minor in the INA’s list of aggravated felonies

Justice Thomas points out that that list includes crimes like murder and forcible rape and therefore is referring to “especially egregious felonies” for which aliens are to be removed and into which Quintana’s conviction does not easily fit.

A key issue in the case was the justices’ refusal to yield to the determination by the immigration judge and the BIA that this type of conduct did qualify for removal. Under a long-standing and central doctrine known as “Chevron deference,” after the 1984 Supreme Court decision from which it stems, administrative bodies like the BIA are given far-ranging deference by federal courts in interpreting the federal laws the administrations apply — in this case the INA and its list of deportable felonies. Under Chevron deference, the BIA’s interpretation of which felonies qualify should only be overturned when it conflicts with the “unambiguous meaning” of the INA.

Justice Thomas wrote for the Court that BIA’s inclusion of this type of statutory rape conviction was, in fact, unambiguously in conflict with the meaning of the INA and cannot be saved by Chevron deference.

Newly-minted Justice Neil Gorsuch was not sitting on the Court when the case was heard in February, hence the merely eight votes in Tuesday’s decision. During his confirmation hearings, Justice Gorsuch attracted controversy over statements that he might be willing to reexamine the continued use of the Chevron doctrine, which would allow federal courts to more easily overrule executive agencies like the BIA in their interpretation of federal laws. Justice Thomas, the author of Tuesday’s opinion in Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, is also a noted long-time critic of the doctrine.

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