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No. 00-767. Argued April 24, 200l-Decided June 25, 2001

Before the effective dates of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), § 212(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 was interpreted to give the Attorney General broad discretion to waive deportation of resident aliens. As relevant here, the large class of aliens depending on § 212(c) relief was reduced in 1996 by §401 of AEDPA, which identified a broad set of offenses for which convictions would preclude such relief; and by IIRIRA, which repealed § 212(c) and replaced it with a new section excluding from the class anyone "convicted of an aggravated felony," 8 U. S. C. § 1229b(a)(3). Respondent St. Cyr, a lawful permanent United States resident, pleaded guilty to a criminal charge that made him deportable. He would have been eligible for a waiver of deportation under the immigration law in effect when he was convicted, but his removal proceedings were commenced after AEDPA's and IIRIRA's effective dates. The Attorney General claims that those Acts withdrew his authority to grant St. Cyr a waiver. The Federal District Court accepted St. Cyr's habeas corpus application and agreed that the new restrictions do not apply to removal proceedings brought against an alien who pleaded guilty to a deportable crime before their enactment. The Second Circuit affirmed.


1. Courts have jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. § 2241 to decide the legal issue raised by St. Cyr's habeas petition. Pp. 298-314.

(a) To prevail on its claim that AEDPA and IIRIRA stripped federal courts of jurisdiction to decide a pure question of law, as in this case, petitioner Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) must overcome both the strong presumption in favor of judicial review of administrative action and the longstanding rule requiring a clear and unambiguous statement of congressional intent to repeal habeas jurisdiction. Here, that plain statement rule draws additional reinforcement from other canons of statutory construction: First, when a statutory interpretation invokes the outer limits of Congress' power, there must be a clear indication that Congress intended that result; and



second, if an otherwise acceptable construction would raise serious constitutional problems and an alternative interpretation is fairly possible, the statute must be construed to avoid such problems. Pp. 298-300.

(b) Construing the amendments at issue to preclude court review of a pure question of law would give rise to substantial constitutional questions. The Constitution's Suspension Clause, which protects the privilege of the habeas corpus writ, unquestionably requires some judicial intervention in deportation cases. Heikkila v. Barber, 345 U. S. 229, 235. Even assuming that the Clause protects only the writ as it existed in 1789, substantial evidence supports St. Cyr's claim that pure questions of law could have been answered in 1789 by a common-law judge with power to issue the writ. Thus, a serious Suspension Clause issue would arise if the 1996 statutes have withdrawn that power from federal judges and provided no adequate substitute. The need to resolve such a serious and difficult constitutional question and the desirability of avoiding that necessity reinforce the reasons for requiring a clear and unambiguous statement of congressional intent. Pp. 300-305.

(c) To conclude that the writ is no longer available in this context would also represent a marked departure from historical immigration law practice. The writ has always been available to review the legality of Executive detention, see, e. g., Felker v. Turpin, 518 U. S. 651, 663, and, until the 1952 Act, a habeas action was the sole means of challenging a deportation order's legality, see, e. g., Heikkila, 345 U. S., at 235. Habeas courts have answered questions of law in alien suits challenging Executive interpretations of immigration law and questions of law that arose in the discretionary relief context. Pp. 305-308.

(d) Neither AEDPA §401(e) nor three IIRIRA provisions, 8 U. S. C. §§ 1252(a)(I), (a)(2)(C), and (b)(9), express a clear and unambiguous statement of Congress' intent to bar 28 U. S. C. §2241 petitions. None of these sections even mentions § 2241. Section 401(e)'s repeal of a subsection of the 1961 Act, which provided, inter alia, habeas relief for an alien in custody pursuant to a deportation order, is not sufficient to eliminate what the repealed section did not grant-namely, habeas jurisdiction pursuant to § 2241. See Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall. 85, 105106. The three IIRIRA provisions do not speak with sufficient clarity to bar habeas jurisdiction. They focus on "judicial review" or "jurisdiction to review." In the immigration context, however, "judicial review" and "habeas corpus" have historically distinct meanings, with habeas courts playing a far narrower role. Pp. 308-314.

2. Section 212(c) relief remains available for aliens, like St. Cyr, whose convictions were obtained through plea agreements and who, notwithstanding those convictions, would have been eligible for § 212(c) relief at the time of their plea under the law then in effect. Pp. 314-326.

Full Text of Opinion

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