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Neil Gorsuch sides with liberals to tip decision to immigrant in Supreme Court deportation case

Supreme Court immigration

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a law subjecting immigrants to deportation for crimes of violence is unconstitutionally vague, handing the Trump administration an early defeat.
President Trump's nominee to the high court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined the liberal majority's 5-4 opinion in deciding that the law passed by Congress failed to define what would qualify as a violent crime.
The ruling was a victory for James Garcia Dimaya, whose two burglary convictions were considered violent crimes under the statute — despite not having involved violence. It was a defeat for the Justice Department, which had defended the law under both the Trump and Obama administrations.
The case was carried over from the high court's 2016 term, when the justices presumably deadlocked 4-4 following Justice Antonin Scalia's death and before Gorsuch was confirmed 14 months later. 
But if that never-confirmed split was along ideological lines — with conservative justices backing the government and liberals siding with the immigrant facing mandatory removal -- Gorsuch's addition turned out to be counterproductive.
During oral argument on the first day of the 2017 term in October, Gorsuch wondered how the court could define a crime of violence if Congress did not.
"Even when it's going to put people in prison and deprive them of liberty and result in deportation, we shouldn't expect Congress to be able to specify those who are captured by its laws?" Gorsuch asked Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler.
The vagueness doctrine is meant to apply in cases where the criminal or civil penalty is severe, and during oral argument, Justice Samuel Alito wondered how to define severity. Gorsuch had a ready answer.
"Life, liberty or property," he said. "It's right out of the text of the Due Process Clause itself."
The court's ruling followed a similar one in 2015, when Scalia wrote an 8-1 decision declaring a key section of criminal law targeting armed violence unconstitutionally vague. The clause had allowed past convictions to be treated as violent felonies if they involved "conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another."