Over a century ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “there is hardly a political question in the United States that does not, sooner or later, turn into a judicial one.” His words could not be more true as the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a verdict in the case Jennings v. Rodriguez on Feb. 27, 2018 stating that people held in immigration detention centers are not entitled to periodic hearings, which may determine eligibility for bail amount and a potential release date. This verdict affects not only undocumented immigrants, but also those with permanent legal status and those seeking asylum. The decision was made the day after the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal over one of the most controversial issues surrounding the Trump presidency, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, the program that shields over 700,000 undocumented immigrants. Our deeply partisan court system is causing massive suffering and uncertainty for individuals who have done nothing to deserve it.
The issue of immigration is not only very sensitive issue, as it affects the lives of thousands who have grown up and lived in the United States, but it is also an extremely partisan one. In Jennings v. Rodriguez, the plaintiff, Alejandro Rodriguez, was a green card holder who was convicted for joyriding when he was 16 and a misdemeanor drug possession at age 24. Such an act would normally have resulted in about a year’s worth of detention. Instead, he was detained in immigration prison for three years because he never received a custody hearing to determine if his detention was actually necessary. Both Justice Alito and Justice Breyer chose to speak out about the 5-3 Supreme Court ruling. Conservative Justice Alito said that the ruling was a necessary one in order “…to determine an alien’s status without running the risk of the alien’s either absconding or engaging in criminal activity.” Justice Breyer, who is considered more liberal, countered this statement—although not directly— by claiming that the ruling impeded immigrants’ fifth amendment constitutional rights. Justice Breyer’s comments touched upon the Declaration of Independence, as he said it insists “that all men and women have certain unalienable rights, and that among them is the right to liberty.”
Jennings v. Rodriguez has garnered so much attention because immigration issues have become so relevant in our current political discussions. But this is more than just a case of detention of immigrants; it is a case that represents how political the legal system can be and how ambiguous the rule of law in fact is. The unpredictability of law stems directly from how differently words can be interpreted. Justice Alito and Justice Breyer exemplify this distinction in their interpretations of the law. Moreover, legal scholar Lief Carter explains in his book “Reason in Law” that law does not substitute for politics, but instead is a special form of politics where judges are able to exercise their political power.
Judges gain their authority because of their apparent impartiality. They are trained to use good legal reasoning when deciding cases. However, just because law is labeled differently from politics does not make it any less partial. Judges at all levels are compelled to use precedents when explaining the reasoning behind their decision. Even so, there are now enough precedents at all levels of the law to help judges justify their decision, no matter what that decision may be. Judges have the freedom to choose which of the many precedents have similar facts to the case they are presiding over, and they also have the freedom to decide what those facts mean.
Mr. Rodriguez’s lawyer Ahilan Arulanantham, who was provided to him by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said after the Supreme Court decision came out that he was disappointed by the judges for playing into partisan politics. His disappointment was rooted in the fact that when immigrants receive a fair trial, based on the individual circumstances and facts of the case, judges often release them. Unfortunately, because “the Trump administration is trying to expand immigration detention to record-breaking levels as part of its crackdown on immigrant communities,” Arulanantham said, judges are losing the opportunity to ensure that the system helps vulnerable immigrants instead of punishing them.