Faculty Blog: Texas v. United States

Judicial opinions are written to persuade. Perhaps this is the reason why Judge Hanen’s opinion in Texas v. United States resorts to truncated arguments, neglecting to discuss the opposing position. Furthermore, nowhere in the opinion does the judge indicate the devastating effect that the opinion will have on the people involved. Instead of focusing on the families that are at risk of being ripped apart through deportation as a result of his decision, Judge Hanen portrays the battle as an abstract political one between states that “bear the brunt of illegal immigration” while the (incompetent?) “powers that be” in the capitol are “rubberstamp[ing]” applications to avoid deportation or giving them only a “pro forma review.” No matter how long an opinion is—and this one is more than 120 pages long—it will sound polemical instead of persuasive if it does not recognize the other side’s arguments.

Among other things, Judge Hanen’s opinion holds illegal the decision by Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, to limit removal actions against some parents of citizens and permanent residents. The United States had claimed that this decision was not subject to judicial review under the federal Administrative Procedure Act on the grounds that it was a discretionary prosecutorial decision. Judge Hanen disagreed, holding that it was reviewable because, among other things, the statute used the term “shall” in relation to deportation instead of “may.” The judge’s handling of this one small point—the interpretation of “shall” in the statute—is illustrative of his failure to voice the United States’ argument in any but the weakest way. Similarly, his reluctance, in discussing this point, to recognize what is at stake for the families involved may show his fear that doing so would make the reader less sympathetic to his position.

This is certainly not the first time that a court has had to interpret a statutory instruction expressed through the word “shall.” The United States Supreme Court took up the issue in Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales, holding that the statute there, which said that the local police department “shall arrest” those who violated domestic violence restraining orders, gave the local police discretion as to whether to arrest or not. Judge Hanen’s failure to deal with this case or with similar cases shows his effort to persuade through blunt assertion instead of through legal analysis.

Justice Scalia, writing for the Court in Castle Rock, denied that a mandatory arrest statute requires the police to make arrests for domestic violence restraining order violations. Instead, he said, “We do not believe that these provisions of Colorado law truly made enforcement of restraining orders mandatory.” (Emphasis in the original). He followed this with a lengthy discussion showing that police discretion to arrest has long “coexisted” with statutory mandatory arrest language. He also questioned how mandatory arrest would work in a setting, like plaintiff Gonzales’s, in which the person violating the restraining order is not present. Scalia’s point is that the statute cannot mean what it says because it would not be workable in that form. Furthermore, he engaged directly with the dissenting Justices’ position that other states have found mandatory arrest statutes in the context of domestic violence to be “more mandatory” than in other contexts.

In contrast, Judge Hanen in Texas v. United States paid only very quick lip service to the fact that some interpret “shall” as “may” before concluding that “shall” in the applicable statute is “imperative” and deprives the Department of the “right to do something that is clearly contrary to Congress’ intent.” There is no mention of Castle Rock or of any other similar case, except for one low-level Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decision. The implication is that this position is not worth considering. This is confusing since immediately prior to this conclusion, he wrote that “DHS does have the discretion . . . to determine how it will effectuate its statutory duty and use its resources where they will do the most to achieve the goals expressed by Congress.” Given this, one would have thought the interpretation of “shall” would be a more complicated problem for him. What comes through to the reader from Judge Hanen’s very brief analysis is that he is upset that the government has announced that it will not enforce the removal laws against “a class of millions of individuals” despite the unmentioned fact that it is continuing to enforce them—at what many consider to be the highest rate ever—against others.

Similarly, Justice Scalia in his opinion in Castle Rock recognized the powerful effect that his reading of the statute would have on powerless members of our society. It took him several paragraphs to recount the story of the abduction and murder of Gonzales’s children by her ex-husband who violated a restraining order; Scalia also detailed the police’s delaying tactics and refusal to do anything about the violation. This opinion, too, is written to persuade, but the sympathetic portrayal of the harm done by the failure to arrest helps to convince the reader that Scalia was aware of the horrific pain inflicted. In contrast, the reader of Texas v. United States does not have any reason to believe that Judge Hanen understood the devastating pain that could be inflicted by tearing families apart. His lack of empathy for the victims of his approach makes the opinion sound even more one-sided than it might otherwise.

It is this anxiety to persuade through a one-sided approach and the unwillingness to admit to the harm done by the decision’s result that hopefully will be remedied on appeal, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

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