Maslenjak v. United States: False Statement Must be Material In Order to Lead to Denaturalization

 

Introduction

On June 22, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in Maslenjak v. United States, 582 U.S. ___ (2017) [PDF version].

The opinion of the Court was authored by Justice Elena Kagan. The Court's majority held that, in order to convict an individual for being in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a), the Government must establish that the defendant's illegal act played a role in his or her acquisition of U.S. citizenship. Accordingly, the Court held that, in determining whether a naturalized citizen violated 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) for having made a false statement to government officials, a jury must be instructed to decide whether the false statement altered the naturalization process such that it influenced the award of citizenship. In accordance with the decision, the Court remanded the case of the petitioner, Divna Maslenjak, because it found that the trial judge had erred in instructing the jury that in considering whether she had violated 8 U.S.C. 1425(a) the jury did not need to determine whether the false statements she made to immigration officials were material to her procurement of naturalization.

Maslenjak

In this article, we will examine the reasoning and analysis of Justice Kagan, writing for a six-justice majority. Additionally, we will examine the separate concurring opinions by Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Samuel Alito. Subsequently, we will discuss what the Maslenjak decision means for denaturalization based on a conviction in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) going forward.'

In this article, we will focus on the analysis of Justices Kagan, Gorsuch, and Alito. To learn more about the underlying facts and procedural history of the case, please see our article on the now-reversed Sixth Circuit opinion in the case [see article]. Additionally, please see our article on the Supreme Court oral arguments in Maslenjak for further discussion on the issues that were resolved by its decision [see article].

Overview of the Alignment

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Justice Elena Kagan. She was joined in full by five of her colleagues: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. As we will examine in subsequent sections, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch all concurred in judgment, albeit not with all aspects of Justice Kagan's decision. Justices Thomas and Gorsuch concurred in part in addition to concurring in judgment.

Because Justice Kagan's opinion carried a majority of the Court, it now constitutes binding precedent on all parties nationwide. However, the concurring opinions are worth examining in detail, for concurrences and dissents often find favor in subsequent decisions.

Opinion of the Court: Justice Kagan

Justice Kagan began by providing an overview of the underlying facts of the case. For a more detailed look at the facts, please see the relevant section of our article on the now-reversed Sixth Circuit decision [see section].

Overview of Facts and Procedural History

The petitioner, Divna Maslenjak, was an ethnic serb who resided in Bosnia during the 1990s. In 1998, she and her family met with a U.S. immigration official to seek refugee status. Maslenjak was interviewed under oath, and in this interview she argued that she and her family would be mistreated because of their ethnicity and that her husband would be persecuted for having evaded service in the Bosnian Serb Army. Maslenjak and her family were granted refugee status.

Maslenjak applied for naturalization six years later. On her naturalization application, she answered in the negative when asked if she had ever provided “false or misleading information” to a government official when applying for an immigration benefit. She also answered in the negative when asked whether she had ever “lied to a[] government official to gain entry or admission into the United States.” She swore under oath that her answers were true in submitting the application and in a naturalization interview with a U.S. immigration official. Maslenjak was naturalized in 2007.

Unfortunately, Maslenjak's answers were demonstrably false. Her husband admitted that he had not evaded service in the Bosnian Serb Army but had actually served in a brigade that participated in the Srebrenica massacre. Her husband was placed in removal proceedings. In testifying on his behalf, Maslenjak admitted that she knew of her husband's service, thus contradicting representations she had made during her application for refugee status.

The Government charged Maslenjak with violating 18 U.S.C. 1425(a), for knowingly “procur[ing], contrary to law, [her] naturalization.” The charges were based on the claim that she had violated 18 U.S.C. 1015(a), which prohibits making a false statement under oath in a naturalization proceeding. At trial, the District Court judge instructed the jury, over the objections of Maslenjak's attorney, that it need not determine whether Maslenjak's false statements had been material to her naturalization. In short, this means that the judge instructed the jury that it did not matter whether Maslenjak's false statements influenced the adjudicator's decision to approve her naturalization application. The jury returned a guilty verdict. Accordingly, Maslenjak was denaturalized under 8 U.S.C. 1451(e) (section 340(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)), which makes denaturalization an automatic consequence of a conviction for violating 18 U.S.C. 1425(a).

The Sixth Circuit upheld the District Court decision, agreeing that materiality was not an element of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) [see article]. The Supreme Court took the case on appeal from the Sixth Circuit.

Statute Has Materiality Requirement

This subsection covers Part II-A of the Opinion of the Court. It is worth noting that Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred with the Court's holding in Part II-A.

Justice Kagan explained that both Maslenjak and the Government agreed that 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) makes it a crime to commit some other illegal act in connection with naturalization. The disagreement resided in what connection between the illegal act and naturalization, if any, is required.

Maslenjak argued that the relationship had to be “causal.” Pointing to the language in 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) that discusses the “procure[ment]” of naturalization “contrary to the law,” Maslenjak argued that a crime relating to naturalization is only a predicate offense for 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) purposes if the crime “contribut[ed]” to the individual being granted citizenship.

In contrast, the Government proposed what Justice Kagan described as a “chronological link.” Under the Government's reading, 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) covers any offense relating to naturalization, even if the offense did not have any effect on the naturalization decision. The Government's reading would encompass a far broader range of offenses as predicates to 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) than Maslenjak's.

Justice Kagan and the majority “conclude[d] that Maslenjak [had] the better of the argument.” In the following sections, we will examine the Court's analysis and reasoning.

Citing to multiple dictionaries, Justice Kagan explained that, in ordinary usage, “to procure something” generally means to obtain possession of it. Accordingly, Justice Kagan took the position that to “procure naturalization” means to obtain naturalization. Justice Kagan then moved to “[t]he adverbial phrase 'contrary to law,' wedged in between 'procure' and 'naturalization.'” Here, Justice Kagan explained that “contrary to the law” specified how a person must obtain naturalization in violating 18 U.S.C. 1425(a). Based on this breakdown of the text, Justice Kagan deduced that “procure[s], contrary to law, naturalization” describes when an individual obtains citizenship illegally.

Justice Kagan and the majority found that the most natural understanding of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) is that the illegal act must have contributed to obtaining citizenship. She found that it was unnatural to read the statute as describing illegal acts relating to naturalization that ultimately had no bearing on the granting of citizenship. Justice Kagan concluded this section succinctly:

“To get citizenship unlawfully, we understand, is to get it through an unlawful means-and that is just to say that an illegality played some role in its acquisition.”

For these reasons, Justice Kagan rejected the Government's position that any offense relating to naturalization qualified as a predicate offense to 18 U.S.C. 1425(a). Please see pages 5-8 of the Opinion of the Court for several examples offered by Justice Kagan to illustrate why the Court found that Maslenjak's reading of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) was the correct one.

Justice Kagan also appealed to the “border statutory context” to explain why the Court agreed with Maslenjak. She explained that the Government's reading of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) “would create a profound mismatch between the requirements for naturalization on one hand and those for denaturalization on the other.”

Justice Kagan noted that the INA requires all applicants for naturalization to establish good moral character for a requisite statutory period (see 8 U.S.C. 1427(a)(3) [INA 316(a)(3)] and 1101(f) [INA 101(f)]). Justice Kagan noted that, in light of the limited bars to good moral character, the Government's reading of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) would require acceptance of the idea that “some legal violations that do not justify denying citizenship under [the good moral character] definition would nonetheless justify revoking it later.”

To illustrate the mismatch point, Justice Kagan compared the good moral character provisions with 18 U.S.C. 1015(a), which is the criminal false statement offense that Maslenjak was convicted of. Under the INA, an individual is barred from establishing good moral character if he or she gives “false testimony for the purpose of obtaining [immigration] benefits.” In Kungys v. United States, 485 U.S. 759, 780 (1988) [PDF version], the Court specifically held that willful misrepresentations that are made for any other reasons, “such as embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy,” are generally insufficient for establishing that an applicant for naturalization lacks good moral character. However, 18 U.S.C. 1015(a) is broader. Accordingly, Justice Kagan noted that, under the Government's reading of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a), an individual could be subject to denaturalization for false testimony that would not have barred the individual from being naturalized in the first place. As Justice Kagan herself put it: “The Government could thus take away on one day what it was required to give the day before.”

In a final point on this issue, Justice Kagan appealed to the broad questions contained in Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. On this point, Justice Kagan echoed Chief Justice Roberts' line of questioning to the Government in oral arguments [see section]. For example, one of the questions on the Form N-400 asks the applicant if he or she has ever committed a crime or offense for which he or she was not arrested. Under the Government's reading, an individual could be subject to charges in violations for 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) for any number of immaterial and minor false statements made in response to this question.

Applying Causal Influence Requirement

This subsection covers Part II-B of Justice Kagan's opinion. It was not joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch, for reasons we will explore when we examine the concurring opinions.

To start, Justice Kagan noted that the question of how to apply the Court's interpretation of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) (the causality requirement) may differ depending on the predicate violation of the naturalization laws in question. Bearing that in mind, Justice Kagan restricted the inquiry to how to evaluate it when the predicate offense is a false statement made to government officials in the course of procuring naturalization. Justice Kagan set forth a new rule: That a jury must decide whether the false statement sufficiently altered the government's adjudication of the naturalization application such that it influenced the award of citizenship.

Justice Kagan explained that the task before a jury in considering whether a naturalized citizen's false statements fall within 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) is, therefore, to evaluate how the knowledge of the real facts would have affected a reasonable government official when properly applying the naturalization laws.

Justice Kagan offered two examples of false statements that could lead to a conviction under 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) under the rules established in part II-A of the opinion. First, if an applicant for naturalization lied about his or her travel history in order to convey that he or she met the physical presence requirement for naturalization when he or she did not, the applicant would be subject to 18 U.S.C. 1425(a). This is because the false statement would have affected a reasonable government official's decision, in properly applying the naturalization laws, to grant citizenship. Regarding the good moral character requirement, if an applicant falsely stated that he or she had not been convicted of a crime that would qualify as an immigration aggravated felony, then he or she would be subject to 18 U.S.C. 1425 because an individual who has been convicted of an aggravated felony is barred from establishing good moral character under 8 U.S.C. 1101(f)(8) (INA 101(f)(8)).

Justice Kagan illuminated another scenario regarding false statements that gives 18 U.S.C. 1425 broad effect. Citing to Chaunt v. United States, 364 U.S. 350, 352-353 (1960) [PDF version], Justice Kagan stated that a false statement could fall under 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) where although the true facts lying behind the false statement itself would not have justified denial of citizenship, their disclosure nevertheless could have led to the discovery of other facts that would have justified the denial of citizenship.

Justice Kagan explained that in this scenario the Government must make a two-part showing in order to procure a conviction under 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) for a false statement:

  1. The Government has to prove that the misrepresented fact was sufficiently relevant to one or another naturalization criterion, such that it would have prompted reasonable officials following the naturalization laws “seeking only evidence concerning citizenship qualifications” to engage in further investigations; and
  2. That such further investigations would have turned up information justifying the denial of citizenship.

Justice Kagan made a key point regarding the second prong. The Government is not burdened with establishing “definitively” that the investigation would have turned up a disqualifying fact. Rather, the Government need only establish that the investigation “would predictably have disclosed” some legal disqualification. Kungys., at 774, 783 (Brennan J., concurring). Justice Kagan gave a couple of reasons for imposing this standard. First, the Government may face difficultly in proving that a hypothetical inquiry in the past would have led to a disqualifying discovery. Secondly, the defendant, rather than the Government, bears the blame for this for having withheld information. It is worth noting that, in the instant case, Maslenjak's false statements to immigration officials concerned events that took place over 20 years prior to the issuance of the decision.

Justice Kagan took the position that her two-step process took these reasonable “exigencies and equities into account.” She explained that a stricter causal requirement would have set the bar beyond that which Congress intended the government to meet. Kungys, 485 U.S., at 777 (opinion of Scalia, J.).

Citing again to Kungys, Justice Kagan observed that the defendant would have the opportunity to rebut the Government's case even where the Government makes its two-part showing. She noted that 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) “is not a tool for denaturalization people who, the available evidence indicates, were actually qualified for the citizenship they obtained.” In Kungys, which concerned the civil denaturalization provision, the Court afforded the defendant the opportunity to establish by the preponderance (weight) of the evidence that the lie did not have a natural tendency to influence the granting of naturalization. Id. Justice Kagan explained that this standard is in line with the Court's precedent on naturalization insofar as the Court has never read a statute as to strip citizenship from someone who met the legal criteria for acquiring citizenship.

Application to the Instant Case

This section covers part III of the opinion of the Court. All nine justices agreed with reversing the Sixth Circuit and remanding for further proceedings.

Justice Kagan found that the jury instructions given by the District Court Judge were in error insofar as the Judge instructed the jury that it could convict Maslenjak in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) upon proof of any false statement in the naturalization process.

It is significant that Justice Kagan did not take the position that Maslenjak's false statement was not a predicate offense for 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) purposes. She noted that there would have been several possible grounds upon which the jury could have found that the false statements did have the tendency to influence the decision to grant Maslenjak citizenship. The issue was that the jury was not asked to make this determination because the court instructed the jury that it was not necessary to determine whether there was a causal connection between Maslenjak's false statements and the decision to grant citizenship.

The Government took the position that any instructional error was harmless, and that Maslenjak's false statements were material to her naturalization application. Maslenjak disagreed. The Court opted to remand to the District Court for further consideration of this issue.

Concurring Opinion: Justice Gorsuch

Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, began by noting the areas in which they agreed with Justice Kagan's opinion. First, Justice Gorsuch explained that they agreed that the text and structure of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) requires the Government to prove causation between the predicate offense and the procurement of naturalization as an element of conviction. To this effect, Justices Gorsuch and Thomas concurred with the holding of Part II-A of the Opinion of the Court. For this reason, Justices Gorsuch and Thomas agreed that the reversal of the Sixth Circuit was required.

However, Justice Gorsuch took the position that the Court should have ended its inquiry with those two determinations. He disagreed with the Opinion of the Court insofar as it operationalized the causation requirement of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) through the two tests discussed above. Justice Gorsuch explained that it's entirely possible that the work done to this effect in Justice Kagan's opinion may be “entirely sound.” However, he took the position that the question before the Court was “focused primarily on whether the statute contains a materiality element, not on the contours of a causation requirement.” Justice Gorsuch noted that the parties did not brief the Court on the latter question and that the issue did not pass before the lower courts. Furthermore, he stated that none of the new rules set forth by Justice Kagan have been tested, and that lower courts had subsequently had issues in applying the similar tests set forth in Kungys in the civil denaturalization context.

Justice Kagan engaged Justice Gorsuch's concurring opinion at footnote 4. She described this approach as a “halfway-decision” and stated that it would fail to fulfill the Supreme Court's responsibilities both to the parties and to the lower courts.

Justice Gorsuch suggested that it would have been prudent to allow district and circuit courts to determine how to apply 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) with its now clearly enunciated materiality requirement. He noted that this “could yield insights (or reveal pitfalls) we cannot muster guided only by our own lights.”

Justice Gorsuch concluded by stating that it was his position that establishing the materiality requirement of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) would have been “work enough for the day.” He added that “[t]his Court often speaks most wisely when it speaks last.”

Concurring Opinion: Justice Alito

Justice Samuel Alito concurred with the Opinion of the Court in judgment only. He agreed that 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) imposes a materiality requirement.

Justice Alito however would have decided the case more narrowly. He saw the statute as requiring only the following:

  1. That the individual made a false statement to obtain naturalization; and
  2. That the false statement was material to the outcome.

Justice Alito took the position that 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) does not require that the false statement actually have had a demonstrable effect on the naturalization decision.

Justice Alito explained that under his reading, an individual could be convicted in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) for knowingly performing a substantial act that he or she believes will procure naturalization, regardless of whether the defendant is correct in that belief. To this effect, Justice Alito cited to United States v. Resendiz-Ponce, 549 U.S. 102, 106-108 (2007) [PDF version].

Conclusion

All nine justices of the Supreme Court agreed that 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) contains a materiality requirement. This was the central question before the Court in Maslenjak. The Supreme Court's decision should be a great relief to naturalized citizens in the United States, for the Government's position would have potentially rendered many naturalized citizens subject to prosecution and denaturalization for even minor false statements.

The justices diverged on what to do beyond finding that 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) entails a materiality element and reversing the Sixth Circuit for having incorrectly held that the district court had correctly instructed the jury to the contrary. Justice Kagan, joined by five of her colleagues, created new binding rules for adjudicators and courts regarding 18 U.S.C. 1425(a) prosecutions. The new procedure sets forth a two-step process for the Government to establish that a false statement had a causal relationship with the decision to grant naturalization, and it makes clear that the defendant has the opportunity to rebut even if the Government meets its two-step burden. However, the Government is not required to show definitively that the false statement actually caused naturalization.

Ironically, although Maslenjak prevailed, she is not out of the proverbial woods. On remand, the Government will have the opportunity to endeavor to prove that her false statements were material, something that Maslenjak's own attorney admitted was quite possible during oral arguments [see section]. We will update the site with more information on Maslenjak's case as it becomes available.

In the course of a naturalization application, or any other immigration application, it is important to be forthright throughout the entire process. Knowingly providing false statements under oath is against the law, and doing so in immigration proceedings often has worse consequences than the mere denial of an application. If an individual is facing either civil or criminal denaturalization, he or she should consult with an experienced immigration attorney immediately for guidance.