The Supreme Court held Tuesday that under immigration law, a certain class of non-citizens facing deportation are not required to have a bond hearing if they've been held in detention for more six months.
The 5-3 ruling, however, avoided a judgment on whether the Constitution requires such hearings, returning that issue to an appellate court.
The ruling is a defeat for supporters of immigrant rights groups who sought greater procedural protections for non-citizens facing deportation. The case was brought by a class of immigrants -- some seeking entrance at the border (many seeking asylum), others who are lawful permanent residents who are fighting deportation for committing certain crimes.
"The decision is a setback for immigrants and immigrant rights groups who have argued for years that these bail hearings are necessary," said Stephen Vladeck, a CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor of law at the University of Texas. "But the court left open the bigger question of whether the Constitution requires such hearings, meaning that these same plaintiffs can now make that claim in the lower court."
The decision comes at a time when immigration groups lament the fact the Obama administration (which also opposed the six-month rule) deported record numbers of immigrants and the Trump administration has vowed to crack down further on enforcement.
The decision could have particularly stark implications under President Donald Trump, who has overseen a hard turn in enforcing immigration laws. The administration has increased the use of detention to house undocumented immigrants awaiting court decisions about whether they can stay in the US.
"This is going to lead to a major increase in the use of detention," predicted former Obama Justice Department official Leon Fresco.
Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, a professor of Immigration Law Practice at Cornell Law School, noted that there are currently over 667,000 cases pending in immigration court with a backlog of almost two years.
"The Trump administration has asked Congress to increasing funding to detain more immigrants," he said, "thus even more immigrants may be detained in the coming months, and will have to wait even longer for their day in immigration court."
The case was originally heard last term by eight justices before Justice Neil Gorsuch took the bench.
At the end of the term, the justices ordered re-argument, presumably because they were evenly divided on some aspects of the case and they needed Gorsuch's vote to break a tie. After oral arguments, Justice Elena Kagan discovered an undisclosed issue that prompted her recusal.
The class of immigrants in the case are all incarcerated and include lawful permanent residents with minor criminal history and asylum seekers who have passed an initial screening but who are waiting for the chance to raise their claims. It does not include any individuals that the government deems to be national security risks.
The lead plaintiff, Alejandro Rodriguez, is a lawful permanent resident who was brought to the United States as an infant. He was employed as a dental assistant when he was put in removal proceedings based on possession of a controlled substance and "joyriding."
He was detained for over three years while he challenged his removal. He eventually managed to appeals his case in a process that took over seven years.
Lower courts had divided on how to interpret the immigration detention statutes at issue in the case. In the case at hand, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of all classes mandating an individualized bond hearing after six months of detention.
Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, issued a dissent, saying he interpreted the law at issue as requiring bail hearings after six months of confinement
"The government has held all of the members of the groups before us in confinement for many months, sometimes for years, while it looks into or contests their claims," he wrote. "But ultimately many members of these groups win their claims and the Government allows them to enter or to remain in the United States."