Mimesis Law
13 December 2019

Sober Analysis: The 9th Circuit Rules “Habitual Drunkards” Can’t Be Barred From The U.S.

Mar. 28, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — For the first time ever, a federal appeals court has ruled that “habitual drunkards” are not inadmissible from the U.S. on the grounds of poor moral character.  From the LA Times:

In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the more than 50-year-old law illegally equated alcoholism with poor moral character. “Is it rational for the government to find that people with chronic alcoholism are morally bad people solely because of their disease?” Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a Carter appointee, wrote for the majority. “The answer is no.”  The majority said alcoholism has long been recognized as a medical disability.

Appellant Salomon Ledezma-Cosino had been in the U.S. since 1997, had five children born in the country, and was considered a hard worker.  But he was a drunk. In the eyes of immigration law, he had poor moral character and was thus barred from seeking cancellation of his removal from the U.S. According to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, those with certain past behaviors or attributes were per se lacking in good moral character and hence ineligible for naturalization. Included in that list was the “habitual drunkard.”

Ledezma brought an equal protection argument before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The court sided with him, concluding that there is no rational basis for classifying persons afflicted by chronic alcoholism as persons who innately lack good moral character:

Just as a statute targeting people who exhibit manic and depressive behavior would be, in effect, targeting people with bipolar disorder and just as a statute targeting people who exhibit delusional conduct over a long period of time would be, in effect, targeting individuals with schizotypal personality disorder, a statute targeting people who habitually and excessively drink alcohol is, in effect, targeting individuals with chronic alcoholism.

Like any other medical condition, alcoholism is undeserving of punishment and should not be held morally offensive.

The court’s decision cited numerous studies and took the time to refute each of the government’s arguments. It pointed out that the list of banned individuals “includes, among others, people who have participated in genocide or torture, been convicted of an aggravated felony or several gambling offenses, spent 180 days in custody as a result of a conviction or convictions, lied to obtain a benefit in immigration proceedings, and people who are ‘habitual drunkard[s].’” (Emphasis added.)  That is one wide net.

It is possible the drafters of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) did not intend to ban the proverbial “functioning alcoholic,” who otherwise contributed to the U.S. as a law abiding denizen.*  Other individuals, who have put in the time and effort to become qualified professionals, are also swept under the rug.

Overbroad criminal law create unintended consequences.  But once a case crosses over from the criminal court into the immigration realm, those consequences are amplified.  Take, for example, our immigration laws on drugs.  Except for a case involving 30 grams or less of the demon weed, any other controlled substances conviction deems a person deportable from the U.S. (save for extremely limited circumstances).  Paid your taxes for 30 years but were caught with a speck of cocaine in the late 80s, and have behaved yourself since then? Deportable.   While at the same time, the majority of convicted felons, so long as their cases are not drug related, have an opportunity to avoid a lifetime of banishment from the United States.

The panel’s holding is a step in the right direction. The 9th Circuit’s learned decision cites many studies on the subject, is compassionate on the afflicted, and scolds the government’s position.  Laws on morality, whether they are enacted with the best of intentions or the most cynical, are bound to create disastrous and expensive consequences.  The same goes for the INA’s ban on alcoholics who otherwise comport themselves within the bounds of the law.

Reasonable minds will differ as to whether a lush can control when or if to get “drunker than a barrel full of monkeys,” but doctors have concluded that it is a disease, as the 9th Circuit noted.  Besides, as with any individual’s consumption of a controlled substance, its rewards and punishments will be administered and endured by the practitioner, without the need for criminalization of his behavior, or his banishment from the United States.  We’ve got better things to do.

* If the government always applied the law to the letter, regardless of the person seeking admission, Winston Churchill would have had some trouble at U.S. customs.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Andrew Fleischman
    29 March 2016 at 1:32 am - Reply

    The 9th Circuit was considerably less sympathetic when it considered whether “addicts” could own firearms under the 2nd Amendment.

    “Like our sister circuits, we see the same amount of danger
    in allowing habitual drug users to traffic in firearms as we
    see in allowing felons and mentally ill people to do so. Habitual
    drug users, like career criminals and the mentally ill, more
    likely will have difficulty exercising self-control, particularly
    when they are under the influence of controlled substances.
    Moreover, unlike people who have been convicted of a felony
    or committed to a mental institution and so face a lifetime
    ban, an unlawful drug user may regain his right to possess a
    firearm simply by ending his drug abuse.”

  • Mario Machado
    30 March 2016 at 5:10 pm - Reply

    Andrew,

    It gets worse for drug users. The federal code provides that an admitted drug addict or abuser, even absent a conviction, is inadmissible to the U.S. under “conduct grounds.” If we play advocatus diaboli with the opinion in Ledezma-Cosino, it means that drunks get to be admitted in the country and drive a vehicle, which some consider a “weapon” that weighs several tons, so long as they’re not caught and convicted.