Vartelas v. Holder

PETITIONER: Panagis Vartelas
RESPONDENT: Eric H. Holder Jr., Attorney General
LOCATION: John F. Kennedy International Airport

DOCKET NO.: 10-1211
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 566 US (2012)
GRANTED: Sep 27, 2011
ARGUED: Jan 18, 2012
DECIDED: Mar 28, 2012

Eric D. Miller - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Stephanos Bibas - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Panagis Vartelas became a Lawful Permanent Resident of the United States on January 5, 1989. On December 9, 1994, Vartelas pled guilty to conspiracy to make or possess a counterfeit security. In January of 2003, Vartelas took a one-week trip to Greece. Upon his return from Greece to the JFK airport in New York on January 29, 2003, an immigration officer questioned Vartelas about his 1994 conviction. On March 27, 2003, immigration officials served Vartelas a notice to appear for removal proceedings on the ground that he sought entry into the United States after being convicted of a crime of moral turpitude and could be deported.

Vartelas appeared before an immigration judge. He submitted a motion to terminate, before filing an application for waiver. The immigration judge denied the application for waiver on June 27, 2006, and ordered the Vartelas removed to Greece. Vartelas made a timely appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which the board dismissed.

Vartelas, through new counsel, subsequently filed a motion to reopen with the Board of Immigration Appeals. The motion to reopen claimed that Vartelas' prior counsel was ineffective having failed to raise the issue of whether 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(13)(C)(v) could be applied retroactively. 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(13)(C)(v) overturned prior law which prevented Lawful Permanent Residents from being denied re-entry into the United States after brief casual trips abroad. The Board of Immigration Appeals denied the motion to reopen, and Vartelas filed a petition to review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Second Circuit denied the petition for review rejecting the argument that the new statute would interfere with the settled expectations of a guilty plea. Vartelas appealed the Second Circuit's decision.


Can 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(13)(C)(v) be applied retroactively to a Lawful Permanent Resident who pleads guilty to a crime of moral turpitude prior to the effective date of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act?

Media for Vartelas v. Holder

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 18, 2012 in Vartelas v. Holder

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 28, 2012 in Vartelas v. Holder

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has our opinion this morning in Case 10-1211, Vartelas versus Holder.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Petitioner Vartelas, a native of Greece, became a lawful permanent resident in 1989.

He pleaded guilty to conspiring to make counterfeit travelers' checks in 1994 and he served a prison term of four months.

At the time of his plea, an alien with a conviction like his could travel abroad for brief periods without jeopardizing his resident alien status.

Vartelas did so, travelling occasionally to Greece, both before and after serving his prison sentence to assist his aging parents.

In 1996, Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act commonly known as IIRIRA.

Under that Act, aliens who have committed certain crimes, among them, counterfeiting, may be stopped from entering the United States when they return from a trip abroad.

By travelling and returning, they risk loss of their permanent resident status and are in danger of becoming excluded aliens.

Vartelas was so stopped in 2003 and was placed under an order permanently removing him from the United States.

This case presents a question of time.

Does IIRIRA reach back and apply to aliens like Vartelas, who committed a crime before IIRIRA's effective date?

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that IIRIRA applied to Vartelas and affirmed the removal order.

We reverse that judgment.

Applying IIRIRA to Vartelas rather than the law that governed at the time of his conviction would retroactively attach a new disability to his prior offense.

Our decisions, however, have long applied a presumption against retroactive legislation.

We read laws as operating prospectively only, unless Congress has instructed their application to past events.

The IIRIRA provision in question, the Government acknowledges, does not say anything about its temporal reach.

We hold that it does not apply to Vartelas' pre-IIRIRA conduct.

Beyond doubt, IIRIRA's entry bar would impose a severe disability on lawful permanent residents like Vartelas.

Loss of the freedom to travel abroad, for example, to fulfill his obligations attend births, weddings or funerals of family members, attend to financial interests or to respond to a family emergency, those are harsh penalties.

The Government argues that Congress has attached no disability to the past conduct of residents, like Vartelas, rather the Government says, “The relevant event is not Vartelas' pre-IIRIRA criminal offense, it is his post-IIRIRA act of returning to the United States after travel abroad,” but we disagree.

True, Vartelas' return to the United States from a week of caring for his parents in Greece occasioned his treatment as a newcomer to our shores, but the reason for his detention and the disability imposed on him was not his lawful foreign travel, it was his pre-IIRIRA conviction.

The Second Circuit ruled that IIRIRA's -- IIRIRA's entry bar did not apply retroactivity -- retroactively to Vartelas because he, in no way, relied on immigration laws when he committed the counterfeiting offense.

This reasoning is doubly fraud.

First, as the Government acknowledges, our decisions in point do not require a party challenging the retroactive application of a statute to show reliance on the prior law in arranging his conduct.

Second, Vartelas likely did rely on existing immigration law when he pleaded guilty to the counterfeiting offense.

There can be little doubt, we observed in the recent decision that alien defendants considering whether to enter into a plea agreement ordinarily are acutely aware of the immigration consequences of their convictions.

For these reasons spelled out in full in the Court's opinion, we hold that Vartelas' reentry into the United States after a brief trip to Greece was governed not by IIRIRA, but by the legal regime in place at the time of his conviction.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas and Justice Alito join.