Luna Torres v. Lynch

PETITIONER:Jorge Luna Torres
RESPONDENT:Loretta E. Lynch, Attorney General
LOCATION: Board of Immigration Appeals

DOCKET NO.: 14-1096
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: Jun 29, 2015
ARGUED: Nov 03, 2015
DECIDED: May 19, 2016

Elaine J. Goldenberg – Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the respondent
Matthew L. Guadagno – for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1999, Jorge Luna Torres, a citizen of the Dominican Republic and a lawful permanent resident of the United States, was convicted of violating a New York state arson statute. In 2007, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) issued a notice charging Luna Torres with inadmissibility because he was an “alien convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.” Luna Torres applied for a cancellation of the removal order and the immigration judge held that Luna Torres was both removable as charged and ineligible for a cancellation of the removal order because he was a permanent resident convicted of an aggravated felony; the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) had previously held that a conviction under the New York state arson statute constituted an aggravated felony. Luna Torres appealed to the BIA and argued that the previous ruling should be reexamined. The BIA dismissed Luna Torres’ appeal, and Luna Torres petitioned for review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Prior to the oral argument before the appellate court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated the BIA’s ruling and concluded that violation of the New York state arson statute did not constitute an aggravated felony because the state statute lacked the federal statute’s interstate commerce element. That decision conflicted with the interpretations of other circuit courts of appeals, and the appellate court in this case upheld the denial of Torres’ petition for cancellation of the removal order.


Does a state offense constitute an aggravated felony for the purpose of the removal of a permanent resident when the federal statute describes the state offense but also includes an interstate commerce element that the state offense lacks?

Media for Luna Torres v. Lynch

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 03, 2015 in Luna Torres v. Lynch

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 19, 2016 in Luna Torres v. Lynch

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kagan has our opinion this morning in case 14-1096, Torres versus Lynch.

Elena Kagan:

The Immigration and Nationality Act, which is called the INA, requires the deportation of any alien convicted of an aggravated felony.

The INA defines the term aggravated felony by listing lots of crimes, so that if a person commits any one of them, that person has to be deported. Some of those crimes are identified by a general label, like murder or rape, but some are listed differently.

In these the INA asks whether you have been convicted of an offense described in a particular federal statute.

In this case, whether you have been convicted of an offense described in 18 U.S.C. §844(i), which is the Federal Arson Statute.

Now, to make things more complicated, that doesn’t mean only if you have been convicted of violating that particular federal statute, because what’s called the penultimate sentence of the aggravated felony provision says that every listed offense counts as an aggravated felony regardless of whether it’s in violation of federal, state or foreign law, and that means that a state or foreign statute that’s very much like the federal statute listed also counts as an aggravated felony.

And what this case is about is exactly how much like the federal statute the state or foreign law has to be?

So take two statutes for arson, one federal and one state, they are identical in every way, but one.

The federal statute requires a connection to interstate commerce, but the state statute doesn’t.

Is the state statute enough of an analogue to the federal one?

Does it match well enough so that it should count as an aggravated felony too?

That’s the question in this case.

Now, this question arises because of a peculiar feature of our federal system.

In that system Congress lacks general power to make criminal laws.

It can outlaw arson only when it’s connected to a congressional power, like the regulation of interstate commerce.

So Congress puts what’s called a jurisdictional element into the statute, which ties the crime to one of its powers, and often that means requiring that the crime affect interstate commerce.

But states don’t have to put that element in because their power to define crimes is more far ranging than Congress’.

So you end up with the kind of mismatch you have here, which is that a state crime and a federal crime are identical in every way except that the federal crime requires a connection to interstate commerce.

And what we hold today is that this slight discrepancy doesn’t matter.

A person convicted of a state law that’s identical to the federal law except that it doesn’t require a connection to interstate commerce has been convicted of a felony and aggravated felony and has to be deported.

Now, we give two reasons.

First, many of the offenses listed in the INA, 27 in all, have one of these interstate commerce elements, and that includes many of the most serious crimes listed, not only arson, but kidnapping, firearms and child pornography offenses.

And we absolutely know that Congress didn’t want it to matter whether these offenses were committed in violation of federal or state law, Congress specifically told us that in what I call the penultimate sentence.

And the only way to make sure it doesn’t matter, to make sure that those convicted of the state versions of those offenses are deported, just as those convicted of the federal versions are is to ignore the federal jurisdictional element.

Second, in ignoring that element we do something that’s very common in the law; distinguish between substantive and jurisdictional elements of crimes.

A substantive element goes to the real harm of a crime, the evil we seek to prevent, but a jurisdictional element, as I have said, goes only to Congress’ power.

We don’t think a fire is any worse if it’s intrastate or interstate.

That has nothing to do with the real harm involved.

And because that’s so, courts have treated these two kinds of elements differently in a variety of contexts, on the view that that’s what Congress would have wanted.

And that’s exactly what we do here, ignore the jurisdictional element and say that a state crime is an aggravated felony if its substantive elements match up with those of the listed federal statute.

Elena Kagan:

We, therefore, affirm the judgment of the Second Circuit.

Justice Sotomayor has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas and Justice Breyer join.