July 26, 2017
On June 22, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Maslenjak v. United States. At the close of the Bosnian civil war, Divna Maslenjak sought refugee status for herself and her family in the U.S. due to fear of persecution regarding their Serbian identity in modern-day Bosnia and the threat of reprisal against her husband, who she claimed had evaded military conscription in the Bosnian Serb militia. After the family was granted refugee status and Maslenjak became a U.S. citizen, a U.S. court convicted Maslenjak’s husband, Ratko, on two counts of falsifying claims regarding Serbian military service on U.S. government documents, since Ratko had in fact served in the Serbian military. When Ratko applied for asylum to avoid deportation, Divna Maslenjak admitted to lying about her husband’s military service and was charged with two counts of naturalization fraud. At her trial, jurors were told that a naturalization fraud conviction could be carried out for false claims in Maslenjak’s application process, even if the claims did not affect whether she was approved. Convicted on both counts, Divna Maslenjack was stripped of her citizenship. The Sixth Circuit affirmed her conviction.
By a vote of 9-0, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case. In an opinion by Justice Kagan, the Court held that (1) the text of 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a) -- which prohibits "procur[ing], contrary to law, the naturalization of any person" -- makes clear that, to secure a conviction, the federal government must establish that the defendant's illegal act played a role in her acquisition of citizenship; (2) when the underlying illegality alleged in a Section 1425(a) prosecution is a false statement to government officials, a jury must decide whether the false statement so altered the naturalization process as to have influenced an award of citizenship; and (3) measured against this analysis, the jury instructions in this case were in error, and the government's assertion that any instructional error was harmless if left for resolution on remand. Justice Kagan’s majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. Justice Gorsuch filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Thomas joined. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.
And now, to discuss the case, we have Vikrant P. Reddy, who is Senior Research Fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.