10 Essential Supreme Court Cases of Ruth Bader Ginsburg


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Sessions v. Dimaya, 2018
A man is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Los Angeles. The 2018 Supreme Court ruling in Sessions v. Dimaya changed how "aggravated felony" was defined, therefore how immigrants convicted of felonies could be deported. John Moore/Getty Images

A case concerning the definition of "aggravated felonies" came before the Supreme Court, as it relates to immigration policies. An aggravated felony includes "a crime of violence as defined in 18 U. S. C. §16". The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) guaranteed that anyone convicted of an "aggravated felony" after entering the United States would be deported. James Dimaya, a lawful, permanent U.S. resident who had emigrated from the Philippines in 1992, had two convictions for first-degree burglary under California law. After his second offense, the government considered him an aggravated felon who should be deported.

The government argued that the convictions fell within the "residual clause" of the definition of a violent crime, which included "any other offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense" [source: Supreme Court].

While Dimaya's appeal was pending in the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court deemed a similar clause in a separate 2015 case unconstitutional. This one was part of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), and defined a "violent felony" as any felony that "otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." The Supreme Court considered the clause "void for vagueness" under the 5th Amendment's Due Process Clause. Referring this other case, the Supreme Court held that the definition of "aggravated felonies" was also unconstitutionally vague [source: LLI].

One interesting twist regarding the ruling in Sessions v. Dimaya is, aside from striking down the key provision of a statute that allows the expulsion of certain noncitizens, the ruling marked the first time Ginsburg was assigned a majority opinion in her 25 years on Supreme Court. Justices are assigned opinions based on seniority, and because Ginsburg voted with the majority in Sessions v. Dimaya, she was the most senior in line. She assigned the opinion to Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote, "Three terms ago, in Johnson v. United States, this Court held that part of a federal law's definition of 'violent felony' was impermissibly vague ... The question in this case is whether a similarly worded clause in a statute's definition of 'crime of violence' suffers from the same constitutional defect. Adhering to our analysis in Johnson, we hold that it does" [source: Supreme Court].

Author's Note: 10 Essential Supreme Court Cases of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: RBG has always been a hero in my eyes, but it was only in my deep research for this piece that I discovered just how hard the icon worked to earn her spot in history. Ginsburg was one of only nine women in her Harvard Law School Class in 1956. "You felt in classes as if all eyes were on you," she said in an interview. "And that if you didn't perform well, you'd be failing not only for yourself but for all women." She says she attributes part of her success in law school to parenting a 14-month-old daughter at the time of her studies. By the way, she was ranked first in her class at Harvard and Columbia, the school she transferred to her senior year.

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