WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court refused Wednesday to block the deportation of a Chicago woman and thousands of other immigrants who pleaded guilty in the past to serious crimes and were not warned by their lawyers that a criminal record targeted them for removal.
The decision highlights the stark consequences for noncitizens of having a criminal record. The current law calls for mandatory deportation for immigrants, including lawful residents, who have an “aggravated felony” on their record. The term can describe a variety of state and federal offenses.
Immigration lawyers say tens of thousands of immigrants, many of them lawful permanent residents, plead guilty each year to crimes that may lead to them being deported.
Three years ago, the high court ruled that lawyers had a duty to warn noncitizens of the prospect that a guilty plea would lead to their deportation.
But in a 7-2 ruling Wednesday, the justices said their earlier decision cannot be applied retroactively to extend relief to immigrants who pleaded guilty to serious offenses before 2010.
Wednesday’s decision came in the case of Roselva Chaidez, a Chicago woman who was born in Mexico. She has lived in Chicago for decades and had been a lawful permanent resident since 1977. Her lawyers said she has three children and two grandchildren.
In 1998, she admitted to receiving $1,200 from an insurance company for having falsely claimed to have been injured in an auto accident. The scheme, run by her son and others, netted $26,000, the government said.
Chaivez pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud, was sentenced to probation and was required to repay $22,000, the total amount received by her and her son. She completed her sentence and had paid her restitution by 2004.
When she later applied for naturalization, she denied having been convicted of a crime. Only then did she learn that pleading guilty to mail fraud involving more than $10,000 meant that she was subject to deportation.
The ruling marked a rare split between President Barack Obama’s two appointees. While Kagan spoke for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissent, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sotomayor, like Kagan, did not address the plight of Chaivez or other immigrants, but she argued that the 2010 decision simply made clear that lawyers had a duty to advise their clients on the law. “Today’s decision deprives defendants of the fundamental protection” that goes with having a competent lawyer, she said.
Chaivez filed a court petition in 2009 seeking to have her conviction overturned on the grounds that her lawyer failed to warn her of the consequences of her guilty plea. She could have argued that because she obtained only $1,200, her crime did not meet the $10,000 threshold for what the law deems an “aggravated felony.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 in the case of Padilla vs. Kentucky that a lawyer’s error in failing to warn a noncitizen of the consequences of a guilty plea gave the defendant a right to seek a new trial.
In Chicago, U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall ruled for Chaidez and set aside her conviction. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed in a 2-1 decision and said the Chicago woman could not take advantage of the high court’s ruling to challenge her conviction.
Wednesday, in Chaivez v. United States, the high court agreed with the appeals court and refused to extend its earlier decision to aid those who pleaded guilty before the ruling.
Justice Elena Kagan said that the 2010 ruling amounted to a major change in the law, and the court has not applied such changes retroactively to old cases. “Defendants whose convictions became final prior to Padilla therefore cannot benefit from its holding,” she said.