The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed its ten-year-old interpretation of the “crime of violence” type of aggravated felony in a case about domestic violence. United States v. Castleman, No. 12-1371, slip op. (U.S. March 26, 2013) (Sotomayor, Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, JJ.). Justice Sotomayor wrote the Court’s opinion. Justice Scalia wrote a separate opinion concurring in part with the reasoning and concurring with the judgment. Justice Alito concurred in the judgment, which Justice Thomas joined.
This case involved a man who was convicted of “intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to” the mother of his child in violation of Tennessee state law. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-111(b) (Supp. 2002). Years later he was caught selling guns and prosecuted for violating the federal prohibition against possession of a firearm by someone who has been convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9). Federal law defines a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as one that, in relevant part, “has, an element, the use or attempted use of physical force.” 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33)(A). The key, then, was whether Castleman’s state conviction involved “the use…of physical forced” and thus constituted a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”
To figure this out, the Court had to grapple with its existing interpretations of “physical force.” Over the last ten years, the Court has twice addressed this language in similar statutes. In Leocal v. Ashcroft, 543 U.S. 1, 11 (2004), the Court held that the “force” envisioned by the phrase “use of force” involves “a category of violent, active crimes.” The Court reiterated this definition of “force” six years later in Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133 (2010). Relying on those decisions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit concluded that Castleman’s Tennesee conviction “did not qualify as a ‘misdemeanor crime of domestic violence’ because Castleman could have been convicted for ‘caus[ing] a slight, nonserious physical injury with conduct that cannot be described as violent.’” Castleman, No. 12-1371, slip op. at 4 (quoting 695 F.3d 582, 590 (2012)).
The Supreme Court took a different approach. Leocal and Johnson, the Court explained, may have addressed similar language as is at issue in Castleman’s case, but in a substantially different context. Those cases concerned whether an individual had been convicted of a “crime of violence” (Leocal) or “violent felony (Johnson). Castleman’s case, in contrast, asked the Court to consider the definition of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” Castleman, No. 12-1371, slip op. at 5. By definition, misdemeanors are less serious offenses than felonies. Moreover, many misdemeanor offenses can be committed without violence. It would be odd, the Court noted, for Congress to have defined “force” to require violence given that such a definition would exclude many misdemeanor offenses from the “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” category. As the Court explained its interpretation, “whereas the word ‘violent’ or ‘violence’ standing alone ‘connotes a substantial degree of force,’ that is not true of ‘domestic violence.’ ‘Domestic violence’ is not merely a type of ‘violence’; it is a term of art encompassing acts that one might not characterize as ‘violent’ in a nondomestic context.” Castleman, No. 12-1371, slip op. at 6-7. In effect, the Court holds that the phrase “domestic violence” has a specialized meaning that includes offenses committed without engaging in the kind of physical force we ordinarily describe as violence.
This has important implications for crimmigration law. The Court’s opinion takes pains to distinguish its reasoning from Leocal and Johnson, two cases with enormous significance to crimmigration law. Leocal sets out the interpretive framework that guides “crime of violence” analyses for purposes of INA § 101(a)(43)(F). Likewise, it guides analyses of the “crime of domestic violence” basis of removal, INA § 237(a)(2)(E)(i), because that definition references the “crime of violence” definition. Johnson is important to crimmigration law for the simple reason that it relies on Leocal so any limitation on Johnson could affect Leocal. But Castleman did nothing of the sort. Not only did the Court distinguish Leocal and Johnson, it added that “[n]othing in today’s opinion casts doubt on…holdings” by courts of appeals and the Board of Immigration Appeals applying Johnson’s understanding of “physical force.” Castleman, No. 12-1371, slip op. at 6-7 n.4.
In the end, Castleman represents an important example of statutory interpretation, but one that has little bearing on crimmigration law.
Note: Practitioners may want to read the excellent practice advisory on Castleman written by the folks over at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild and the Immigrant Defense Project.
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