A case about citizenship draws laughter and lively banter at the Supreme Court

Politics

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: The U.S. Supreme Court's final case this term was expected to be a highly technical argument on immigration law, but it wound up pulling back the curtain a little on the justices' personalities, and how they interact with each other.

John Yang has the details of listening in on court arguments.

JOHN YANG: Here to walk us through some of the key moments during Wednesday's oral arguments is Robert Barnes. He has covered the Supreme Court for The Washington Post for more than a decade. And he also had the misfortune of being my editor at The Post.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN YANG: But, Bob, thanks for coming in.

ROBERT BARNES, The Washington Post: It's good to be here.

JOHN YANG: In a nutshell, Bob, what was this case about?

ROBERT BARNES: Well, this is a case about a woman from Bosnia who claimed persecution, was admitted to this country, became a naturalized citizen.

And then it turned out she had lied on some of her applications. Specifically, she had said that her husband was trying to avoid military service. It turned out he had been in a Bosnian militia unit that had been charged with some war crimes.

JOHN YANG: And the woman's attorney went first, since she's the petitioner in this case. How did that argument go?

ROBERT BARNES: The real fact here was, does it matter if something you lie about on your application is material to the fact that you got citizenship?

And the law is not specific about that. It doesn't say that it has to be relevant. It says that you can't lie. And so the government had taken the position that any lie would be reason for it to move against someone to take away their citizenship if they want.

And the lower courts agreed, said that, no, the federal government doesn't have to prove that it was relevant to her getting it, just that she had lied.

And so the question for the court was, is that the right thing or not? Is that the right standard?

JOHN YANG: And then, as you wrote in The Washington Post, things got really interesting when they turned to the government's attorney, Robert Parker.

Chief Justice John Roberts made a personal confession.

JOHN ROBERTS, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: Some time ago, outside the statute of limitations, I drove 60 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERT PARKER, Justice Department Attorney: I'm sorry to hear that.

JOHN ROBERTS: I wasn't arrested.

Now, you say if that I answer that question no, 20 years after I was naturalized as a citizen, you can knock on my door and say, guess what, you're not an American citizen after all.

ROBERT BARNES: Well, the chief justice wasn't comparing speeding to a war crime, but what he was saying is, what's the logical extension of this?

If the government says that someone can lose their citizenship for lying about anything, then how far does that go? Does it go to even something as mundane as speeding which you didn't fess up?

JOHN YANG: And he had not said anything in the arguments with the woman's attorney; is that right?

ROBERT BARNES: That's right.

Sometimes, when the chief justice is quiet during one part of the argument, if you're the lawyer getting up, you need to be worried, because it means that he may agree with that side and he's ready to pounce on you.

And that's pretty much what the chief justice did to this poor government lawyer.

JOHN YANG: And then on that point of what's relevant and what's not relevant, there was an exchange involving Justice Elena Kagan.

So, let's take a listen to that.

ROBERT PARKER: I mean, you could lie about your weight, let's say. You're embarrassed that you weigh 170 pounds, and so you claim that you weigh 150.

And, remember, this has to be a lie under oath after you have sworn to tell the truth, and you're deliberately lying about something. It calls into question the veracity of your other answers. And that is very important in the naturalization process.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERT PARKER: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

ELENA KAGAN, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court: You will be glad to know I don't have another of these questions for you.

(LAUGHTER)

ELENA KAGAN: Although I am a little bit horrified to know that every time I lie about my weight, it has those kinds of consequences.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBERT PARKER: Only under oath.

ELENA KAGAN: Yes.

JOHN YANG: We should point out that Parker wasn't referring specifically to Justice Kagan.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERT BARNES: That's right, exactly right.

No, again, it was the same point. And what justices like to do is, they keep spinning these ideas out. What about this, what about this, what about this? And if it's the lawyer in a position where they have got to defend something — you know, we should point out too, this is a long-held government view.

It's not one that has come up just recently, but one that has come up a long time ago. It's just that this case got to the court now.

JOHN YANG: And then, later in the arguments, Justice Anthony Kennedy pressed Parker about the meaning of citizenship.

ROBERT PARKER: All I can say is, I don't think that the statute says anything that would necessarily prevent denaturalization from occurring. But there are a number of …

ANTHONY KENNEDY, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court: It seems to me that your argument is demeaning the priceless value of citizenship. To say, oh, he would just be restored to his — or she to her former status, that's not what our cases say. That's not what citizenship means.

You're arguing for the government of the United States, talking about what citizenship is and ought to mean.

JOHN YANG: Now you say that that's a very characteristic question from Justice Kennedy.

ROBERT BARNES: Yes. It's bad for your side if Justice Kennedy starts talking about something that the government does as being demeaning or affecting the dignity of an individual, because that's something that's very important to him. And those are words that no lawyer really wants to hear coming from Justice Kennedy.

JOHN YANG: Very unusual tone, it seemed, in this argument. How usual or unusual is that?

ROBERT BARNES: This was a very lively back and forth among the justices.

It was a very sort of entertaining argument to be at. It was also their last argument of the term. After this, the justices start writing their opinions in all the cases they have heard since October.

And so, in a way, it was sort of the end of the school day for them. And so it was a very interesting and lively conversation.

JOHN YANG: Bob Barnes, thanks for taking us behind the scenes a little bit at the Supreme Court.

ROBERT BARNES: My pleasure.

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