When Should the Court Account for Errors?

Lyle Denniston has an interesting post on SCOTUSBlog discussing whether the Court will reconsider its judgment in Nken v. Holder because the decision was based, in part, on erroneous factual premises.

The Justice Department last month told the Court that it had provided faulty information in that case about U.S. immigration policy, but it suggested that the Court need not do anything about it. Now, however, a group of immigrants’ rights lawyers have asked the Court to actually modify the opinion after the fact, so that lower courts do not rely upon the error, with a negative impact on immigrants’ rights.

The Court has formally accepted the Justice Department’s letter expressing regret over the development, as well as the lawyers’ letter filed last Friday asking for a change in the ruling. That letter, though, was not filed for a party in the case — the immigrant Jean Marc Nken or the federal government — but rather on behalf of several immigrants’ rights groups who took part in the Nken case three years ago as amici — not a direct role. The Department has already made clear it sees no need for a modification, and Nken may have no reason to seek it, since in the meantime he has been granted asylum to stay in the U.S.

When a factual error upon which the Court had relied in Kennedy v. Louisiana was disclosed, and both the SG’s office and Louisiana sought rehearing, the Court altered the wording of its opinion, but not the result. with Nken, on the other hand, the time for rehearing has passed, but the consequences of the Court’s error may be significant.

for the immigrants’ rights lawyers, they have told the Court that this is not just a matter of procedural inconvenience or nicety. Various lower courts have relied upon the incorrect statement in the Court’s Nken opinion to deny an immigrant’s plea to remain in the U.S. until that individual has a chance to challenge deportation in court, they said. Moreover, the attorneys’ letter said, there is reason to doubt even the Justice Department’s assurances to the Court that the government now has a policy that it will allow a deported non-citizen to return to the U.S. if he or she wins a challenge to being sent away. “There is still substantial agency discretion” about that outcome, the letter argued.

What’s more, the letter said, the government can give no assurance that, in the future, some other administration may rely on what the Court had said in Nken about the right of return, and thus feel justified in refusing a non-citizen’s re-entry. The government, it added, has made no commitment “to a permanent, legally binding policy.”

It will be interesting to see how the Court responds.