The Supreme Court (opinion attached below) has affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Kawashima, ruling that resident aliens who pled guilty to making (or assisting in making) a false tax return in violation of Code section 7206 had committed “aggravated felonies” that made them deportable. The vote was 6-3, with Justice Thomas writing the opinion and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan dissenting.
As we have previously reported, the Kawashima case involves the interplay between two subsections of the deportation statute’s definition of aggravated felonies, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43). Subsection (M)(i) broadly includes offenses “involv[ing] fraud or deceit”; subsection (M)(ii) adds violations of Code section 7201 (tax evasion). The Kawashimas argued that subsection (ii) is addressed to tax offenses and therefore the statute does not include the less serious tax offenses covered by section 7206. The government argued that section 7206 offenses involve “fraud or deceit,” and therefore they are covered by subsection (ii). (See here for a more detailed analysis of the Supreme Court briefing).
The majority agreed with the government, applying a literal and technical approach to the statutory language that did not afford much weight to the historical understanding of the criminal tax provisions. The Court first found that the conduct of willfully submitting a false tax return inherently involves ‘deceit” and therefore is encompassed within subsection (i). The Court then rejected the Kawashimas’ primary argument that this conclusion was untenable because it would make subsection (ii) entirely superfluous (since tax evasion also involves deceit). To support that conclusion, the Court accepted the government’s technical argument that subsection (ii) was not superfluous because there was theoretically a situation where tax evasion does not involve “deceit” – namely, when a taxpayer files a truthful tax return but evades payment by moving his assets beyond the reach of the IRS. Thus, the Court ruled that, “[a]lthough the Government concedes that evasion-of-payment cases will almost invariably involve some affirmative acts of fraud or deceit, it is still true that the elements of tax evasion pursuant to §7201 do not necessarily involve fraud or deceit.”
The dissenters characterized the majority’s construction of the statute as “dubious,” criticizing in particular its contortions to avoid the conclusion that its construction “effectively renders Clause (ii) superfluous.” According to the dissent, the government’s proposed instances of tax evasion not involving “deceit” are not just “rare,” they are “imaginary.” Given that the Court has previously “declined to interpret legislation in a way that ‘would in practical effect render [a provision] entirely superfluous in all but the most unusual circumstances,” the dissent argued that the majority’s reading is unsustainable. Pointing to an amicus brief filed by former IRS Commissioner Johnnie Walters, the dissent also stated that the Court’s decision would have adverse consequences for the efficient handling of tax prosecutions. In particular, it will discourage aliens from pleading guilty to the lesser section 7206 offense instead of going to trial on a tax evasion charge, because of the risk of deportation.
Supreme Court Struggles With Confusing Criminal Tax and Deportation Interplay in Kawashima Oral Argument
We are finally getting around to updating Kawashima, the Supreme Court case involving the question of whether a conviction under section 7206 is a deportable offense under the immigration laws. The Court heard argument on the case back in November. A decision likely will be issued this spring. It’s hard to read which way the Court is leaning based on the arguments. Several Justices seemed to balk at petitioners’ technical argument that a false statement on a return (under section 7206) can be something less than intending to deceive the IRS (a crime involving “fraud or deceit” is deportable under the immigration laws — see our prior post).
The argument first focused on the Code’s “willfulness” concept and whether the requirement in section 7206 that the false statement be submitted willfully in fact turned an act that — without willfulness — might not be intended to deceive into something that showed intent to deceive. Petitioners’ counsel tried to focus the Court on the concept that intent to deceive required intent to induce an action or reliance and not merely intent to make a false statement. This position seemed to concern several Justices given that the false statement was on a document submitted to the government for a specific purpose (reporting taxes). The argument also briefly turned to the question of the case law — largely Tax Court case law — which historically held that a conviction under section 7206 did not automatically trigger the extended limitations period for fraud unless the IRS independently proved fraud. The Justices did not substantively comment on this point during petitioners’ time but came back to it during the government’s argument and it seemed to get some traction with the Chief Justice.
Petitioners’ counsel and Justice Scalia spent a substantial amount of time discussing whether the inclusion of both section 7201 and the “fraud or deceit” provision in the deportation law rendered the former superfluous if the government’s reading was adopted. This involved a discussion of the text of section 7201, which has long been textually framed as an attempt “to evade or defeat any tax” and does not specifically use the words fraud or deceit. While the Justices did not seem to be happy with the responses by petitioners’ counsel, an amicus brief submitted by Johnnie Walters — a former IRS Commissioner — deals with the history and meaning of section 7201 quite compellingly. And when questioning the government’s counsel, Justices Ginsburg and Kagan both seemed concerned that the government’s position could read one part of the deportation statute out of the law based on this historic reading of section 7201. This led Justice Breyer to introduce the idea that section 7206 does not seem to meet the common law definitions of fraud or deceit — a point not raised by counsel as best as we can tell — but something that could be relevant in determining Congressional intent.
Piercing through the government’s argument, Justice Kagan was able to get its counsel to admit that even the evasion-of-payment cases under section 7201 have to involve some sort of fraud in order to be prosecuted under that statute. Counsel also basically admitted that the IRS/DOJ has never prosecuted a section 7201 case that didn’t involve fraud. This triggered a question by Justice Breyer as to whether the government’s position would make every single perjury statute a deportable offense — something that would profoundly impact both defendants and the system. Justice Kagan then returned to the circularity of the government’s arguments regarding superfluity (a point we have made a few times previously).
As we said at the outset, it is difficult to see where all of this is going. Petitioners do seem to us to have the stronger case when you consider the historic meaning of section 7201 (which is fundamental to criminal tax practice) but the statutory text could be confusing when read outside of that context. We will update you as soon as we see a decision.
The petitioners’ and respondent’s briefs have been filed in Kawashima v. Holder, Sup. Ct. Docket No. 10-577, appealing 615 F.3d 1043 (9th Cir. 2010). As described in our original post, that case involves the question of whether pleas to section 7206 offenses (subscribing to false statements and assisting same) are “aggravated felonies” that result in deportation under the immigration laws. The case turns largely on the statutory interpretation of the relevant portion of 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43)(M).
The petitioners’ position is essentially the same as it was below (although more developed). The primary argument is based on the language of 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43)(M), which provides, in relevant part, that an aggravated felony includes an offense that:
(i) involves fraud or deceit in which the loss to the victim or victims exceeds $10,000; or
(ii) is described in section 7201 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (relating to tax evasion) in which the revenue loss to the Government exceeds $10,000.
The crime to which petitioners pled is plainly not an aggravated felony under the second prong, because petitioner pled to section 7206 and not to section 7201. Petitioners argue that section 7206 offenses cannot be covered by the first prong either. They base this argument on ordinary principles of statutory construction.
First, petitioners argue that the use of the term “revenue loss” in the second prong of the statute indicates Congressional intent that the term “loss to the victim or victims” in the first prong does not include a revenue loss to the government. The purposeful use of different terms in each section seems to imply such an intent. Furthermore, the response that this difference simply reflects a different purpose for each prong (one that focuses on governmental loss and one that does not) ultimately supports petitioners’ overall argument that the first prong was not intended to reach losses to the government such as through non-section 7201 tax crimes.
Second, petitioners posit that interpreting tax crimes to fall into the first statutory prong would render the second superfluous. As we previously discussed, this seems to be a strong argument. At a minimum, it would be odd for Congress to place one tax crime in a specific statutory provision and all other tax crimes in a vague and broad provision that covers many other offenses. And the analysis in Leocal v. Ashcroft, 543 U.S. 1 (2004) (cited by petitioners) strongly implies that Congress should not be considered to have intended that meaning.
Finally, petitioners argue that the reference in the second prong to “tax evasion” helps to define (and limit) the scope of the term “fraud or deceit” in the first prong and that the sentencing guidelines support this view. Petitioners’ analysis in this respect is largely based on the application of the interpretative canon that the specific limits the more general. Because terms like “revenue loss” and “tax evasion” are used in the second prong, it is not appropriate — under petitioners’ application of this canon — to read those terms into the first prong. Petitioners’ reliance on the sentencing guidelines seems to be a stretch given that there is no direct support for the premise that Congress actually considered these guidelines when formulating the aggravated felony definition. (Petitioners argue that Congress “likely” considered same given the timeline of adoption of the various provisions.)
In the alternative, the Kawashimas argue that their pleas did not involve fraud or deceit (and thus could not be included in the first prong anyway) and that, even if they might be included in that prong, the whole scheme is so confusing that the rule of lenity should apply to exempt them from a strict application. The first argument relies on the elemental approach to the determination of whether a crime is an aggravated felony as applied by the Court in Nijhawan v. Holder, 555 U.S. 1131 (2009) and earlier rulings. Under that approach, courts are supposed to determine whether the relevant factors for aggravated felony purposes (here, among others, fraud or deceit) were necessarily elements of the crime for which the defendant was convicted and not to focus on the specific conduct committed by the specific defendant. See also Leocal, 543 U.S. at 7. Because the elements of section 7206 do not require a finding of fraud or deceit (petitioners characterize it, not altogether unfairly, as a tax perjury statute), under this “elements and nature” approach, a section 7206 offense cannot amount to an aggravated felony under the first prong of 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43)(M). This second argument is a Hail Mary and implicitly relies on the confusing state of the immigration law in this area as demonstrated in the rest of petitioners’ brief. While immigration rules are ludicrously complex in this area, so is much of criminal law. Unless the members of the Court are prepared to hold that any issue complex enough to find its way into their hands is necessarily unclear or confusing enough to give rise to the rule of lenity, it would seem an odd way to resolve the case (although a refusal by the Court to apply ludicrously complex rules might convince Congress to be more rational in drafting statutes).
The Solicitor General’s brief generally tracks the petitioners’ arguments in substance but not in order. The government takes issue with the petitioners’ assertion that section 7206 does not require an element of fraud or deceit by focusing more on the dictionary definition of deceit than the historic application of section 7206 in jurisprudential context. As to the question of fraud, the government attempts to equate material falsehoods (required for section 7206) with fraud (or at least deceit). This appears to be a difficult argument to sustain unless the Court is prepared to depart from principles that are fairly well settled in the lower courts. The Tax Court and several Circuit Courts of Appeals have held that a conviction under section 7206 does not necessarily trigger fraud penalties or the fraud period of limitations in the civil side of the Internal Revenue Code. See, e.g., Wright v. Commissioner, 84 T.C. 636 (1985). It is hard to reconcile the government’s argument with these authorities. Perhaps the best way to distinguish these authorities is on the basis that the material falsehoods at issue did not amount to a showing that the taxpayer intended to prepare a fraudulent return (i.e., to commit tax evasion) and that the aggravated felony test asks the (different) question of whether any fraud was conducted against a “victim.” The logical problem with this argument is that it assumes that there is some other way for the government to suffer a loss than the fraudulent return. If the fraud has to be linked to the loss, then the interpretation of section 7206 in cases like Wright seems inconsistent with the government’s argument in its brief.
The government attacks petitioners’ specific-over-general argument on the basis that the second prong does not by its terms encompass all tax offenses (it refers only to section 7201, the capstone tax offense). While this is true, it raises the question of why Congress would have isolated one tax offense from all of the others (assuming all of the others are included in the first prong). This, in turn, drives into petitioners’ superfluity argument. On that question (where much of the merit rests in our opinion), the government starts with the premise that Congress sometimes wishes to be superfluous. It then argues that the failure of the second prong to cover all tax offenses (as opposed to section 7201) would render that prong ambiguous. This argument seems baseless. The only way prong one is rendered ambiguous by petitioners’ argument is if you are predisposed to assume that all tax offenses are either in prong one or in prong two. If you come to the statutory interpretation exercise without that excess luggage, it is perfectly natural for prong two to deal with the sole exemplar of a tax offense that is an aggravated felony and for prong one to include no tax offenses at all. (This is arguably the most natural reading of the provision). The government’s efforts to force ambiguity into prong one by arguing that Congress might have wanted to make really, really, really sure that a tax statute — section 7201 — that for all time has stood as the capstone of tax fraud/evasion would be interpreted as involving fraud or deceit seem to us a bit of a stretch.
The government finishes by focusing on the legislative disconnect between the aggravated felony rules and the sentencing guidelines (fairly chastising petitioners for failing to prove a direct connection). It also dismisses the applicability of the rule of lenity on the ground that mere ambiguity is insufficient to trigger that rule (the case law indicates the ambiguity must be grievous). Finally, the government notes that the agency never formally addressed the question of whether non-section 7201 tax crimes can be aggravated felonies. In the government’s view the agency should be allowed to do so on any remand and any such decision should be accorded Chevron deference. As mentioned above, we doubt that the Court will resolve the case on either of these bases.
Petitioners’ reply brief is due October 31, and the case is scheduled for oral argument on November 7.
The Supreme Court this morning granted certiorari in one case, Kawashima v. Holder, on which we have been reporting for some time. See our original post here. As we observed in our report on the cert petition, the Court always has the option of limiting its grant of certiorari to a subset of the questions presented in the petition, and it has exercised that option here. The Court will resolve only the first question presented — namely, whether violations of 26 U.S.C. 7206 (subscribing to a false statement on a tax return) are “aggravated felonies” that can justify deportation of a resident alien. The Kawashimas argue that only tax evasion convictions under section 7201 are aggravated felonies, and the courts of appeals have divided on the issue. Now the Supreme Court will resolve the dispute.
The case will now be briefed over the summer and argued in the fall of 2011, with a decision likely in the spring of 2012. The Kawashimas’ opening brief is due July 7.
The Supreme Court was expected to announce this morning whether it would grant certiorari in the Kawashima case, but today’s order list contained no order in the case. Instead, the Court has “relisted” the petition for consideration at this week’s conference. That means that the case has caught the Court’s attention and distinguished itself from the mass of cert petitions that are routinely denied, with some of the Justices determining that the petition warrants more careful study. Although the odds that the petition will be granted have increased, it remains true that most cert petitions are denied, even the ones that are relisted. (That is what happened last month with the State of Virginia’s cert petition seeking immediate review of its challenge to the constitutionality of the new health care legislation.) If the Court is ready to decide on the Kawashima petition this week with the benefit of another week to consider it, the order denying or granting certiorari would be announced next Monday, May 23.
After four extensions, the government finally filed its response to the petition for certiorari in Kawashima. As we previously reported (see here and here), that petition raises a question on which the courts of appeals are in conflict — whether a tax offense other than tax evasion can be an “aggravated felony” for purposes of the immigration laws, which would justify deportation of a resident alien. Maybe the government was spending all that extra time considering whether to “acquiesce” in the petition and invite the Supreme Court to resolve the conflict, or maybe it was just taking its sweet old time. In any event, the government has filed a brief urging the Court to deny certiorari.
The brief in opposition acknowledges that there is a conflict in the circuits, terming it “a narrow disagreement.” But the government argues that there is no need for the Court to resolve that disagreement. In particular, the government argues that the Court’s recent decision in Nijhawan v. Holder, 129 S. Ct. 2294 (2009), supports the government’s position and, since the Third Circuit’s contrary decision was issued before Nijhawan, “the narrow disagreement in the courts of appeals may be resolved without further intervention of this Court.” On the merits, the government resists the petition’s statutory construction analysis by arguing that “fraud or deceit” is not necessarily an element of tax evasion under 26 U.S.C. § 7201. If it is not, then theoretically 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43)(M)(ii) is not superfluous, as the petition argues.
In their reply brief, petitioners vigorously contest the government’s premise that “fraud or deceit” is not necessarily an element of tax evasion under 26 U.S.C. § 7201 by analyzing the structure of the Code’s criminal tax provisions. Among other things, petitioners state that the government’s “reasoning defies logic: the greater offense [section 7201] does not necessarily involve ‘fraud or deceit,’ but the lesser offense [section 7206] necessarily does.” With respect to the government’s assertion that this circuit conflict does not warrant the Supreme Court’s attention, petitioners maintain that the need to stop unlawful deportations presents a compelling reason for Supreme Court review.
The Court is likely to act on the petition on May 16.
We noted back in November that the taxpayer had filed a petition for certiorari in Kawashima v. Holder, 615 F.3d 1043 (9th Cir. 2010), on the question whether Code section 7206 offenses provide a basis for deportation — an issue on which the circuits are split. We stated that the Court could be expected to rule on the petition in early 2011, even if the government obtained a fairly routine 30-day extension of its December 2, 2010 response date.
There is no ruling yet because the government has now obtained three such extensions. That is fairly unusual and may indicate that the government’s lawyers are struggling with how to respond. In any case, it is unlikely that the Court would grant another extension. If a response is filed on the current due date of March 4, 2011, then the Court will likely issue its ruling on its April 4 order list.
As we expected, a petition for certiorari has been filed in Kawashima v. Holder, 615 F.3d 1043 (9th Cir. 2010). To review, that case involves the question of whether pleas by Mr. and Mrs. Kawashima to section 7206 offenses of subscribing to false statements (and assisting same) as to their corporation’s 1991 tax return could be “aggravated felonies” under the immigration laws. As noted in our initial blog post, the relevant section of 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43)(M), if read holistically, would seem to preclude that conclusion but a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit (after changing its mind a few times in the interim) ultimately held that section 7206 offenses do provide a basis for deportation.
In addition to pointing out the circuit split (the Third Circuit – in another divided panel – previously adopted the Kawashimas’ position), the petition cites myriad statutory construction cases for the premise that (M)(i), involving “fraud or deceit,” cannot encompass section 7206 when M(ii) specifically references only section 7201 (the crime of tax evasion). We were disappointed to see that our favorite case on this subject (United Savings Association of Texas v. Timbers of Inwood Forest Associates, 484 U.S. 365 (1988)) wasn’t cited:
Statutory construction . . . is a holistic endeavor. A provision that may seem ambiguous in isolation is often clarified by the remainder of the statutory scheme – because the same terminology is used elsewhere in a context that makes its meaning clear . . . or because only one of the permissible meanings produces a substantive effect that is compatible with the rest of the law.
Id. at 371. Perhaps that gem will make it into a merits brief if certiorari is granted.
The petition also takes on the question of whether a section 7206 crime necessarily involves fraud, citing Considine v. United States, 683 F.2d 1285 (9th Cir. 1982) for the proposition that it doesn’t. The petition also makes arguments based on rule of lenity as frequently applied in the immigration context. See generally INS v. St. Cyr, 533 U.S. 289 (2001).
Finally, the petition presents a second question – an interesting procedural question of whether the Ninth Circuit acted outside of its authority under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 41 by amending its second opinion as to Mrs. Kawashima (which found she had not committed an aggravated felony on grounds that the loss amount has not been proven) after the date the mandate allegedly was required to issue as to her, because the petition for rehearing was filed only as to Mr. Kawashima. This is a potential home-run argument for one of the petitioners, but the question lacks the broad applicability that would ordinarily interest the Supreme Court. The Court is free under its rules to grant certiorari limited to one of the questions presented in the petition if it so chooses. It will be interesting to see if it does so in this instance.
The government’s response is currently due on December 2, but the government routinely requests extensions of 30 days or more to respond to petitions for certiorari. The Court can be expected to rule on the petition early in 2011.
On August 30, 2010, the Ninth Circuit granted Petitioner’s Motion to Stay the Mandate in Kawashima. This stays the mandate in the case pending the filing of a petition for writ of certiorari and confirms our prior speculation that petitioner is going to try to make a run at the Supreme Court. We will be watching the case with interest and will post the petition when it appears.
On August 4, 2010, the Ninth Circuit denied panel and en banc rehearing in a case applying 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(M)(i) to hold that a tax offense other than tax evasion is a crime involving fraud or deceit and thus an aggravated felony under the immigration laws (which allows for deportation). Kawashima v. Holder, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 16125 (9th Cir. Aug. 4, 2010). This is actually the fourth opinion issued by the Ninth Circuit in the case, appending a three-judge dissent from denial of en banc rehearing to the third panel opinion issued back in January 2010. Kawashima v. Holder, 593 F.3d 979 (9th Cir. 2010). (The first two panel opinions (Kawashima v. Mukasey, 530 F.3d 1111 (9th Cir. 2008), and Kawashima v. Gonzalez, 503 F.3d 997 (9th Cir. 2007)), were withdrawn so that the panel could reconsider the case in light of new Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court decisions.) The Ninth Circuit has now placed itself squarely in conflict with the decision of a divided panel of the Third Circuit (Ki Se Lee v. Ashcroft, 368 F.3d 218 (3d Cir. 2004), in which then Judge (now Justice) Alito was the dissenter. The Fifth Circuit, however, adopted the same basic reasoning as Kawashima in Arguelles-Olivares v. Mukasey, 526 F.3d 171 (5th Cir. 2008), cert. denied, 130 S. Ct. 736 (2009).
The primary question in these cases is one of statutory interpretation. 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43)(M) provides that an aggravated felony includes an offense that:
(i) involves fraud or deceit in which the loss to the victim or victims exceeds $ 10,000; or
(ii) is described in section 7201 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (relating to tax evasion) in which the revenue loss to the Government exceeds $ 10,000;
Mr. Kawashima pled guilty to section 7206(1), a tax crime that involves subscribing to a false statement on a tax return; his wife pled to section 7206(2), a tax crime involving aiding and assisting in the preparation of a false tax return. Neither pled to section 7201, tax evasion.
The dispute between the circuits rests on how much the interpretation of (M)(i) should be guided by the existence of (M)(ii). As the Third Circuit and a strongly worded dissent in Kawashima both note, “statutory text must be read in context.” 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 16125 at *28. When read in context, it appears that the only tax crime that was intended to be covered is tax evasion as set out in (M)(ii). This is so because if tax crimes are governed by (M)(i), then (M)(ii) would be superfluous. Superfluities are a red flag in statutory interpretation. See, e.g., Market Co. v. Hoffman, 101 U.S. 112, 115 (1879) (“We are not at liberty to construe any statute so as to deny effect to any part of its language. It is a cardinal rule of statutory construction that significance and effect shall, if possible, be accorded to every word.”).
The majority in Kawashima evaded this reasoning on the basis that if Congress had not wanted (M)(i) to apply to tax offenses “Congress surely would have included some language in that provision to signal that intention.” U.S. App. LEXIS 16125 at *13. Apparently, the language in the next clause, (M)(ii), doesn’t count. And the majority’s opinion does not convincingly address the problem of creating superfluities. Merely because the language of (M)(i) is broad enough to cover tax offenses other than tax evasion when that subsection is read in isolation, that doesn’t mean that one can divine Congressional intent to actually do so when the statute is read holistically. Regardless, two circuits have now adopted the view that a tax offense other than tax evasion can be an “aggravated felony.”
It is too early to tell if a petition for certiorari will be filed in Kawashima but given the split and the substantial number of amici involved in the circuit filings, one might reasonably expect one. That said, the same conflict was presented in Arguelles-Olivares yet the Court denied certiorari, apparently persuaded by the Solicitor General’s suggestion that the Court “should wait for further developments.” Having the Ninth Circuit join the Fifth Circuit in agreeing with the government may not be the kind of development the Supreme Court had in mind. A petition for certiorari would be due on November 2, 2010. The final Ninth Circuit opinion and the United States brief in opposition in Arguelles-Olivares are attached.