Matter of K-S-: BIA Not Bound By Published District Court Decisions

 

Introduction: Matter of K-S-, 20 I&N Dec. 715 (BIA 1993)

On October 5, 1993, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) published a precedent decision in Matter of K-S-, 20 I&N Dec. 715 (BIA 1993) [PDF version]. The Board held that it is not bound to follow the published decision of a United States district court in cases arising within the same district. This rule contrasts with the Board's being bound to follow published decisions of United States circuit courts in cases arising within the same circuit.

In this article, we will examine Matter of K-S- to the extent which it articulates the Board's position that it is not bound to follow published district court decisions within the same district.

General Explanation of Federal Courts

The federal judiciary is split between trial courts and appellate courts.

Federal district courts are trial courts that also decide habeas corpus petitions. There are 94 district courts across the country, with each district court having jurisdiction over a certain geographic area. Each state has at least one district court. The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands also each have one district court. All U.S. district courts are established under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, with the exception of the district courts in the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which are Article IV tribunals.

Federal circuit courts are appellate courts. There are 13 federal circuit courts, with 12 having geographic jurisdiction and one having subject-matter jurisdiction. Each of the 94 federal district courts falls within the jurisdiction of one of the 12 federal circuit courts that have geographic jurisdiction. Federal appellate courts hear appeals from district court trial and habeas corpus decisions. All federal circuit courts are established under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. We discuss the jurisdiction of the 13 circuit courts in a separate article [see article].

Finally, the Supreme Court of the United States, established in the text of Article III, is the highest federal court in the United States. Its decisions are binding on all courts nationwide.

In the instant article, we will be discussing a decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals. While the BIA functions somewhat like a court, it is actually an administrative appellate body rather than a court. The Board is part of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and derives its authority from the Attorney General of the United States. The Board hears appeals of immigration judge decisions from across the country. Immigration judges are not constitutional judges but are also part of the DOJ. Board decisions are generally appealed to the circuit court having geographic jurisdiction over the matter

Relevant Factual and Procedural History: 20 I&N Dec. at 715-717

The applicant, a native and citizen of India, had been placed in exclusion proceedings under rules in effect under the pre-1996 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The applicant, a Sikh from Punjab, claimed that he had been persecuted first by Sikh militants, and second by local police after having been falsely implicated by militants, and he sought relief from deportation in the form of asylum and the former withholding of deportation.

The immigration judge denied the applicant's applications for asylum and withholding after determining that the applicant had not suffered past persecution and did not have a reasonable fear of future persecution.

Basis of Appeal: 20 I&N Dec. at 717

The applicant appealed from the immigration judge's denying relief to the BIA. On appeal, the applicant stated that the facts of his case were identical to those in a recent published decision of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California — Singh v. Ilchert, 801 F.Supp 313 (N.D. Cal. 1992) [PDF version]. Because the applicant's case arose within the jurisdiction of the Northern District of California, he argued that the Board was bound to apply the District Court's reasoning in Ilchert to his case.

The former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) conceded that the instant case arose in the jurisdiction of the Singh court. The INS argued, however, that the Board was not bound by the published decision of a district court.

For the following reasons, the Board concluded that it was not bound by Singh and ultimately dismissed the applicant's appeal as a result.

Board Concludes That It Is Not Bound to Follow Published District Court Decisions: 20 I&N Dec. at 718-20

The Board began by acknowledging that, under its existing precedents, it had been bound to follow a published decision of a United States district court in matters arising within the same jurisdiction. Matter of Amado and Monteiro, 13 I&N Dec. 179, 181 (BIA 1969) [PDF version]; see also Matter of Fakalata, 18 I&N Dec. 213, 217-18 (BIA 1982) [PDF version]; Matter of Melendez, 16 I&N Dec. 54, 55 (BIA 1976) [PDF version]; Matter of Harris, 15 I&N Dec. 39, 43 (BIA 1970) [PDF version]. The Board had previously cited favorably to this rule as recently as in 1989. Matter of Anselmo, 20 I&N Dec. 25, 31 (BIA 1989) [PDF version].

In most cases, over two decades of Board precedent supporting a particular position would be the end of the issue. The Board, however, may reassess its own precedents — and it did just that in the instant case: “[W]e conclude that [Matter of Amado and Monteiro] and its progeny represent an incorrect legal position. Consequently, we find it necessary to withdraw from those cases on this limited issue.”

The Board explained that its position in Matter of Adamo and Monteiro regarding its being bound to follow published district court decisions “was stated in a conclusory fashion without any supporting analysis or authority.” The Board noted that it had long held that it was bound to follow federal circuit court precedents from within the same circuit, except in unusual circumstances. See e.g., Matter of Anselmo, 25 I&N Dec. at 31-32. In the instant case, however, the Board concluded that district court “precedents” are fundamentally different than circuit court precedents.

Circuit court panels are bound by the precedent decisions of prior panels of that Circuit Court, unless and until a prior precedent is modified by an en banc court. See e.g., Ward v. City of San Jose, 967 F.2d 280, 283 (9th Cir. 1991) [PDF version]; Centel Cable v. White Dev. Corp., 902 F.2d 905, 908-09 (11th Cir. 1990) [PDF version]. Conversely, district court judges are not bound by the published decisions of their colleagues, even in cases arising within the same district. See e.g., Starbuck v. City & County of San Francisco, 556 F.2d 450, 457 n.13 (9th Cir. 1977) [PDF version]; In re Korean Airlines Disaster of Sept. 1, 1983, 664 F.Supp. 1478, 1480-81 (D.D.C. 1986) [PDF version].

The Board further noted that the Supreme Court had held that the Federal Government is not restricted by the doctrine of “nonmetal collateral estoppel.” United States v. Mendoza, 464 U.S. 154 (1984) [PDF version]. Under Mendoza, the Board explained, “the Government's failure to appeal from the adverse decision of a lower federal court does not bar it per se from relitigating the same question in a subsequent case against a different party.” The Supreme Court stated in Mendoza that there may be many reasons the Government does not seek review of a district court decision in a particular case. Id. at 160-61.

In a footnote, the Board noted that the Government had acknowledged in its brief that it had withdrawn its appeal to the Ninth Circuit of the district court decision in Singh v. Ilchert. The Government stated, however, that its withdrawal was mandated by reasons other than acquiescence to the district court's decision. The Board observed that: “Presumably, the Government's decision was motivated by 'institutional' or 'policy' concerns of the type described in … Mendoza …, rather than solely by a general fear of establishing adverse precedent.”

The Board next examined the practical consequences of a rule mandating that it follow published district court decisions: “If an agency of the Federal Government were required to follow the decision of a district court within that tribunal's jurisdiction, other judges from that same district would never have the opportunity to review the issue presented.” The Supreme Court suggested in Mendoza that important questions of law might go unconsidered. Mendoza, 464 U.S. at 160. The Board acknowledged that the reasoning of a district court judge in a particular case must be considered — and that fellow district court judges apply the “discretionary doctrine of intra-court comity.” See e.g., Indiana Nat. Corp. v. Rich, 554 F.Supp. 864, 867-68 (S.D. Ind. 1982) [PDF version], rev'd on other grounds, 712 F.2d 1180 (7th Cir. 1983). The Board added, however, that the analysis of a district court judge need not be followed as a matter of law in such other cases.

The Board found that while there was an abundance of precedent decisions on the obligation of federal agencies to follow circuit court precedents in cases arising within the same circuit, “there are virtually none addressing the issue with respect to the ruling of a district court.” The Board reasoned that this would likely not be the state of affairs if published district court decisions were considered to have the same precedential value as published circuit court decisions: “[B]ecause of the large volume of district court decisions, one would expect a significant number of relevant cases to exist if the position stated in Matter of Amado and Monteiro … were correct.”

The Board found only two district court decisions containing language contradicting its conclusion that it was not bound by published district court decisions. Hillhouse v. Harris, 547 F.Supp. 88, 91-93 (W.D. Ark. 1982) [PDF version], aff'd, 715 F.2d 428, 430 (8th Cir. 1983); Flores v. Secr. Of Health, Educ. and Welfare, 228 F.Supp. 877, 878 (D.P.R. 1964) [PDF version]. Neither decision arose in the jurisdiction of the Northern District of California or the Ninth Circuit. The Board concluded that the relevant analysis in Hillhouse v. Harris was mere dicta, while the relevant analysis in Flores was not supported by any authority and was not in accord with the Supreme Court's decision in Mendoza.

Conclusion

Matter of K-S- remains a significant BIA precedent. It abandoned longstanding precedent that required the Board to follow published district court decisions in matters arising within the same court district as the matter before the Board. In so doing, the Board provided that it is only required to follow the precedents of circuit courts in matters arising within the same circuit (and the Supreme Court, nationwide). As a result, district courts are only binding in particular cases, like non-precedent circuit court decisions, and not in any other cases.

Because the government does not always pursue appeals from district court decisions, and because the results of appeals from district court decisions are not always published as precedent decisions by circuit courts on appeal, the government may stand by certain positions even after receiving unfavorable decisions in certain district court cases.

This is not to say, however, that the Board may not rely upon district court decisions as being instructive. For example, please see our article on the BIA decision in Matter of Mohamed, 27 I&N Dec. 92 (BIA 2017) [see article], wherein the Board carefully distinguished a Texas statute from a New York statute considered by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia [see article].