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Supreme Court Rebuffs 5th Circuit and Reaffirms the Importance of Federal Court Review

Released on Tue, Jun 16, 2015

Washington, D.C. - The American Immigration Council and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild applaud the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday in Mata v. Lynch. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court overturned the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and held that federal courts have authority to review immigration decisions denying motions to reopen removal orders. A motion to reopen is a procedural protection meant to ensure a proper and lawful outcome in an immigration proceeding. The Supreme Court’s decision strongly reaffirmed the importance of federal court review of motions to reopen, and sent a clear message to the Fifth Circuit that it cannot continue its unlawful practice of depriving noncitizens of access to the courts. 

Petitioner Noel Mata had filed a motion to reopen, asking the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to “equitably toll,” or waive, the deadline for filing his motion. “Equitable tolling” is a long-recognized legal principle through which courts can waive the application of a filing deadline where a person acted diligently, but nonetheless was unable to comply with a deadline. In this case, Mr. Mata was prevented from filing on time due to ineffective assistance of counsel. Nine courts of appeals have held that the motion to reopen deadline is subject to equitable tolling. However, Mr. Mata lived in Texas, which is in the Fifth Circuit, a court of appeals which has never resolved the issue. Instead, the Fifth Circuit treated Mr. Mata’s motion as a request for the BIA to reopen under its sua sponte authority – a discretionary authority over which the Fifth Circuit had previously said it would not exercise review in at least some situations. As a result, the Fifth Circuit found that it lacked authority to consider Mr. Mata’s motion.

The Supreme Court rejected the Fifth Circuit’s position, which was out-of-step with all other courts to consider it. Federal courts may not “side-step[] the judicial obligation to exercise jurisdiction,” essentially closing the door to relief for noncitizens. The Court did not address the merits question of whether the reopening deadline can be equitably tolled. On remand, the Fifth Circuit should join its sister circuits and recognize that motions to reopen are subject to equitable tolling.

The American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Project, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, represented by the law firm of Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger, Tetzeli & Pratt, P.A., filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of Mr. Mata.

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For more information, please contact Wendy Feliz at wfeliz@immcouncil.org

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