(Bloomberg) -- A divided U.S. Supreme Court threw out a provision in federal immigration law that had been used to deport foreigners convicted of serious crimes.
The justices, voting 5-4, said Tuesday that the law’s definition of "crime of violence" was so vague as to be unconstitutional. People convicted of a violent crime are subject to mandatory deportation, meaning government officials don’t have discretion to let them stay.
Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said the law’s definition of a violent crime was similar to a provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act that the justices have ruled was unconstitutionally vague. As in the career-criminal law, the immigration provision "produces more unpredictability and arbitrariness than the due process clause tolerates," Kagan wrote.
The ruling rejects arguments made by the Trump administration and earlier by the Obama administration. It comes as President Donald Trump tries to step up deportations.
"Today’s Court decision means that Congress must close loopholes that block the removal of dangerous criminal aliens, including aggravated felons," Trump said on Twitter. "House and Senate must quickly pass a legislative fix to ensure violent criminal aliens can be removed from our society. Keep America Safe!"
Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the court’s liberal wing in the majority, though he didn’t join all aspects of Kagan’s opinion. Writing separately, he said vague English laws, like the crime of treason, were one reason for the American Revolution.
"Today’s vague laws may not be as invidious, but they can invite the exercise of arbitrary power all the same -- by leaving the people in the dark about what the law demands and allowing prosecutors and courts to make it up," Gorsuch wrote.
The court took the unusual step of hearing arguments twice in the case, scheduling a second session after Gorsuch was sworn in as the ninth justice.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito dissented.
The decision is a victory for James Dimaya, a Philippine citizen who was twice convicted of residential burglary in California and has been fighting deportation efforts.
The case is Sessions v. Dimaya, 15-1498.
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