In an immigration ruling that scrambled the usual alliances, the justices differed over the significance of the article “a.”
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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government must comply strictly with a requirement that immigrants receive detailed notices about their deportation hearings.
The 6-to-3 decision featured unusual alliances, with the three conservative justices most committed to interpreting statutes according to their plain words — Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett — joining the court’s three-member liberal wing to form a majority.
The case concerned a 1996 federal law that allows immigrants subject to deportation to apply to stay in the country if they meet various criteria, including that they had been continuously present for at least 10 years. The law stops that time from accruing once immigrants receive “a notice to appear” for a deportation hearing listing various kinds of information, including the nature of the proceeding and when and where it will take place.
The question in the case was whether the government had to provide all of the information at once or could do so piecemeal. Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority, said the statute’s use of the article “a” in “a notice to appear” was crucial.
“To an ordinary reader — both in 1996 and today — ‘a’ notice would seem to suggest just that: ‘a’ single document containing the required information, not a mishmash of pieces with some assembly required,” he wrote, giving other examples.
“Someone who agrees to buy ‘a car’ would hardly expect to receive the chassis today, wheels next week, and an engine to follow,” Justice Gorsuch wrote.
The decision means that Agusto Niz-Chavez, an immigrant from Guatemala who entered the United States unlawfully in 2005, may apply to seek permission to stay. Mr. Niz-Chavez received the required information in two documents in 2013, appeared at the hearing specified in them with a lawyer and had been ordered deported.
Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan also joined Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion in the case, Niz-Chavez v. Garland, No. 19-863.
In dissent, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh accused the majority of wooden and pointless literalism that “spawns a litany of absurdities.” For example, he wrote, “under the court’s interpretation, the 10-year clock does not stop if the noncitizen receives the two separate documents on the same day but in different envelopes.”
“Ordinary meaning and literal meaning are two different things,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote in a 22-page response to the 16-page majority opinion. “And judges interpreting statutes should follow ordinary meaning, not literal meaning.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Justice Kavanaugh’s dissenting opinion, which took a different view of how to understand the article “a.”
“The word ‘a’ is not a one-size-fits-all word,” he wrote, conceding that “a car dealership that promises to ship ‘a car’ to a customer has not fulfilled its obligation if it sends the customer one car part at a time.”
“By contrast, it is common to submit ‘a job application’ by sending a résumé first and then references as they are available,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote. “When the final reference arrives, the applicant has submitted ‘a job application.’ Similarly, an author might submit chapters of a novel to an editor one at a time, as they are ready. Upon submission of the final chapter, the author undoubtedly has submitted ‘a manuscript.’”
Justice Gorsuch responded that the court’s job was to unearth the meaning of the statute before it.
“If, in the process of discerning that meaning, we happen to consult grammar and dictionary definitions — along with statutory structure and history — we do so because the rules that govern language often inform how ordinary people understand the rules that govern them,” he wrote.
He added that it was only fair to hold the government to the standards it imposes on ordinary people. “If the government finds filling out forms a chore, it has good company,” he wrote. “The world is awash in forms, and rarely do agencies afford individuals the same latitude in completing them that the government seeks for itself today.”
“At one level,” Justice Gorsuch wrote, “today’s dispute may seem semantic, focused on a single word, a small one at that. But words are how the law constrains power.”