The US Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Sineneng-Smith, a case concerning a statute that criminalizes encouraging illegal immigration for financial gain.
In 2010 a grand jury indicted Evelyn Sineneng-Smith for multiple violations of 8 USC § 1324. The law makes it a felony to “encourag[e] or induc[e] an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law.” Sineneng-Smith encouraged her clients to apply for a certification that would permit them to remain legally in the US. However, they did not qualify for the certification, and she earned over $3.3 million from her clients.
At trial, Sineneng-Smith argued that the law did not apply to her actions. The trial court rejected this argument and her claim that the law violated the First Amendment. On appeal, Sineneng-Smith did not extensively alter her arguments. Relying on three amicus curie briefs requested by the Ninth Circuit, the court ruled in Sineneng-Smith’s favor and found the law unconstitutional. The briefs reframed the issues of the case and asked questions not raised by the parties. As the court had invalidated a federal law, the US government appealed.
Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg called Ninth Circuit’s decision an abuse of discretion. Under US common law, the parties involved in the case, not outside parties, must frame the issues. While courts possess some leeway, the Ninth Circuit overstepped its authority by focusing on what the panel thought the law might cover instead of the controversy presented by the parties.
The case has been remanded to the Ninth Circuit to be reconsidered “shorn of the overbreadth of the inquiry interjected by the appellate panel and bearing a fair resemblance to the case shaped by the parties.”