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Media Alerts - Case Name: Ledezma-Cosino v. Lynch
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May 3, 2016
  Case Name: Ledezma-Cosino v. Lynch
Headline: Ninth Circuit panel held 8 U.S.C. Section 1101(f)(1) as an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because there is no rational basis to classify people afflicted by chronic alcoholism as innately lacking "good moral character."

Area of Law: Constitutional, Equal Protection Clause; 8 U.S.C. Section 1101(f)(1).

Issue Presented: Whether 8 U.S.C. Section 1101(f)(1) violates due process or equal protection on the ground that chronic alcoholism is a medical condition not rationally related to the presence of absence of good moral character.

Brief Summary: The petitioner, with a medical history of alcohol abuse, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and denied eligibility for cancellation of removal or voluntary departure because he lacked "good moral character" on the grounds that he was a "habitual drunkard" under 8 U.S.C. section 1101(f)(1). In applying the Equal Protection Clause's rational basis test, the Ninth Circuit panel held it is not rational for the U.S. Government to find that people with chronic alcoholism are morally bad people because of this disease. Thus, the panel held that the statute was unconstitutional.

Significance: The Ninth Circuit panel held 8 U.S.C. Section 1101(f)(1) was an unconstitutional violation of the right to equal protection and broadened the scope for which an individual may be eligible for cancellation of removal or voluntary departure on the basis of "good moral character."

Extended Summary: The petitioner, Salomon Ledezma-Cosino (Petitioner), was a Mexican citizen who illegally entered the United States in 1997. Petitioner supported his family, including eight children, by working in the construction industry. According to Petitioner's medical records, he had a ten-year history of alcohol abuse, where he drank an average of one liter of tequila each day. His alcohol abuse led to at least one DUI. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained Petitioner in 2008 and pursued his removal from the United States. Petitioner conceded to removability but sought cancellation of removal or voluntary department. Congress limited to eligibility for cancellation of removal or voluntary departure to non-citizens of "good moral character;" any person deemed to lack good moral character may not be considered for discretionary relief.

The immigration judge (IJ) denied relief for several reasons, and the Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed solely on the ground that Petitioner was ineligible because he lacked good moral character as a "habitual drunkard."

First, the panel addressed the Government's claim that Petitioner, as a non-citizen, was unable to raise a due process or equal protection claim because he lacked a protectable liberty interest in discretionary relief. The panel agreed that non-citizens cannot challenge denials of discretionary relief under the due process clause. However, the panel noted that an equal protection claim does not require a liberty interest and the Supreme Court has long held that the constitutional promise of equal protection applies to non-citizens as well as citizens. Therefore, the panel held that Petitioner was barred from raising a due process claim, but could raise an equal protection challenge.

Next, under the Equal Protection Clause, the panel held that a classification between non-citizens who are otherwise similarly situated nevertheless violated equal protection unless it was rationally related to a legitimate government interest. Here, the government interest is in excluding persons of bad moral character. The issue therefore became whether the statute's disparate treatment of individuals with alcoholism was "rationally related to a legitimate state interest" in the denial of discretionary relief to individuals who lacked good moral character. In other words, was it rational for the Government to find that people with chronic alcoholism were morally bad people solely because of their disease? The panel held that: (1) alcoholism was a medical condition; (2) that was undeserving of punishment; and (3) should not be held to be morally offensive.

The Government argued that persons suffering from alcoholism are morally blameworthy because they simply lack the motivation to overcome their disease. The panel rejected the Government's argument observing that medical literature did not support such conclusions and that such a conclusion would characterize some veterans of war, a highly disproportionate number of Native Americans and a substantial portion of America's homeless to be people of bad moral character.

Next, the Government argued that individuals suffering from habitual alcoholism have bad moral character because they "are an increased risk of committing acts of violence or self-harm." The panel analyzed the studies presented in the Government's arguments and found that the studies did not show any link to moral culpability.

Lastly, the Government argued that "habitual drunkards have been the target of laws intending to protect society since the infancy of the legislation, and therefore such history proves the rationality of the legislations." The panel held that classifying alcoholics as evil people, rather than as individuals suffering from a disease, was neither rational nor consistent with our fundamental values. Vacated and Remanded.

To read full opinion, please visit:
https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2016/03/24/12-73289.pdf

Panel: Stephen Reinhardt, Richard R. Clifton, Circuit Judges, and Miranda M. Du, District Judge.

Argument Date: July 10, 2015

Date of Issued Opinion: March 24, 2016

Docket Number: 12-73289

Decided: Vacated and Remanded

Case Alert Author: Kristina Coronado

Counsel:

Nora E. Milner (argued) Milner & Markee, LLP, San Diego, California for Petitioner.

Lisa M. Damiano (argued), Stuart F. Delery, Benjamin C. Mizer, and Terri J. Scadron, United States Department of Justice, Office of Immigration Litigation, Washington D.C., for Respondent.

Author of Opinion: Stephen Reinhardt, Circuit Judge

Circuit: Ninth

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Glenn Koppel

    Posted By: Glenn Koppel @ 05/03/2016 03:17 PM     9th Circuit  

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