U.S. Supreme Court

Justices appear skeptical of government stance in case about revocation of citizenship

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A formerly naturalized citizen may not have told immigration officials the whole truth, but her case got some support from several justices of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, the New York Times reported.

The issue in Maslenjak v. United States is whether a lie to immigration authorities must be material in order to lead to a revocation of citizenship. That question arose in the case of Divna Maslenjak, a 53-year-old ethnic Serb raised in an area that is now Bosnia. According to SCOTUSBlog, Maslenjak told American officials that she and her children at one point returned to Bosnia without her husband, Ratko, because they were worried he would be forced to serve in the Bosnian Serb military.

Maslenjak was granted refugee status in 1999, and became a naturalized citizen in 2007. But in 2013, the federal government indicted her for the crime of “knowingly procur[ing]… contrary to any law, the naturalization of any person.” In fact, prosecutors said, Ratko had served in the military during a time when it was responsible for a “genocide of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians in and around the town of Srebrenica.”

At her trial, Maslenjak argued her lie was not material, but prosecutors contended — and the judge instructed the jury — that a lie doesn’t need to be material to lead to a conviction under this statute. The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. She was convicted and deported, along with her husband, to Serbia.

Maslenjak’s attorneys argued to the Supreme Court that the lie must be material, and that she is entitled to a new trial on that basis. As Justice Stephen Breyer noted, the stakes are high for naturalized citizens, most of whom are likely to have left trivial-seeming information off their applications. However, SCOTUSBlog notes, a ruling for Maslenjak does not necessarily restore her citizenship, because the government is likely to argue that her lie was material if she gets a new trial.

According to the Times, several justices appeared to agree on Wednesday. Chief Justice John Roberts confessed he’d once broken a speed limit; Justice Elena Kagan said she sometimes lies about her weight; Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked about omitting a childhood nickname, an actual question on the relevant naturalization form.

Justice Department lawyer Robert Parker said all of these false statements would trigger the statute under which Maslenjak was convicted. The Times article said Roberts appeared shocked.

“Oh, come on,” he said. Roberts later argued that this stance means “the government will have the opportunity to denaturalize anyone they want.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy criticized that stance more directly.

“Your argument is demeaning the priceless value of citizenship,” he told Mr. Parker. “You’re arguing for the government of the United States, talking about what citizenship is and ought to mean.”

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