The Obama administration tried to persuade the Supreme Court of the United States Tuesday to retain a federal law that makes it easier to deport immigrants who have been convicted of crimes.
If the justices agree, the outcome could help the incoming Trump administration fulfill its pledge to step up the deportation of immigrants who are convicted of crimes.
The justices heard argument in the administration's appeal of a lower court ruling that struck down the law as unconstitutional. The case concerns a provision of immigration law that defines a "crime of violence." Conviction for a crime of violence subjects an immigrant to deportation and usually speeds up the process.
It was unclear from the argument how the court would rule.
The federal appeals court in San Francisco struck down the measure as too vague. The appeals court based its ruling on a 2015 Supreme Court decision that struck down a similarly worded part of another federal law imposing longer prison sentence on repeat criminals.
Since then, four other appellate panels have ruled for immigrants, while one has sided with the government.
The high court case concerns James Dimaya, a native of the Philippines who came to the United States legally as a 13-year-old in 1992. He was twice convicted of burglary in California. The government began deportation proceedings against him in 2010.
"We have seen this show before. We know how it ends," said Joshua Rosenkranz, Dimaya's lawyer, urging the court to strike down the measure. The justices heard several cases involving repeat criminals before finally voiding the law.
But Justice Stephen Breyer said he was unsure what to do. "I'm floating on this," he told Rosenkranz. On the one hand, Breyer said there was much to Rosenkranz's argument. But, Breyer said, "I quite worry about the implications."
Justice Department lawyer Edwin Kneedler pointed out that other laws allowing for deportation of people convicted of sexual and domestic abuse could be vulnerable to a court challenge because they rely on the same contested language. Kneedler also said the courts are not having the same trouble dealing with deportations as they did with repeat criminals. "There is simply not the disarray there was," Kneedler said.
A decision in Lynch v. Dimaya, 15-1498, is expected by June.