United States v. Sineneng-Smith

Justia Summary

Sineneng-Smith operated a California immigration consulting firm, assisting clients to file applications for a labor certification program that once provided a path for aliens to adjust to lawful permanent resident status. Sineneng-Smith knew that her clients could not meet the long-passed statutory application-filing deadline but nonetheless charged each client over $6,000, netting more than $3.3 million. Sineneng-Smith was indicted under 8 U.S.C. 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) and (B)(i), which make it a felony to “encourag[e] or induc[e] an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law,” An enhanced penalty applies if the crime is “for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain,” Appealing her convictions to the Ninth Circuit, Sineneng-Smith asserted a First Amendment right to file administrative applications on her clients’ behalf. The court invited amici to brief issues framed by the panel, then held that section 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) is unconstitutionally overbroad under the First Amendment.

A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. “The Ninth Circuit panel’s drastic departure from the principle of party presentation constituted an abuse of discretion.” No extraordinary circumstances justified the court’s takeover of the appeal. Sineneng-Smith, represented by competent counsel, had raised a vagueness argument and First Amendment arguments concerning her own conduct, not that of others. Electing not to address the party-presented controversy, the panel projected that section 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) might cover protected speech, including abstract advocacy and legal advice. A court is not “hidebound” by counsel’s precise arguments, but the Ninth Circuit’s “radical transformation of this case” went too far.