WASHINGTON – A day later than usual, work begins in earnest Tuesday at the Supreme Court with justices weighing when immigrants convicted of crimes may be deported and whether to reinstate a death sentence in California.
The traditional start of the court's term was Monday, which this year fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. The court met briefly for routine business without Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, who are Jewish.
A year ago, Chief Justice John Roberts was officiating at his first session and President Bush had not yet revealed his choice to fill the seat of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who had announced her retirement.
Bush's first pick, White House counsel Harriet Miers, eventually withdrew her nomination because of fierce opposition from conservatives who usually are allies of the president. Justice Samuel Alito was nominated at the end of October and took his seat on the court three months later.
The hallmark cases of the first full term for the current lineup of justices will come later when the court hears disputes over abortion, race and the environment.
Yet the outcome of the first cases on the schedule could affect thousands of immigrants who have run afoul of the law in the United States.
The case of Mexican national Jose Antonio Lopez, a permanent U.S. resident since 1990, is the latest chapter in the court's decision-making at the intersection of immigrants' rights and U.S. criminal law.
Solicitor General Paul Clement, the Bush administration's Supreme Court lawyer, said appeals courts are split over whether immigrants convicted of state drug felonies can avoid deportation if the same crimes were considered misdemeanors under federal law.
Clement said 77,000 aliens with criminal records received deportation orders in fiscal year 2005. Fewer than 7,000 of them had arrests for drug possession, he said.
Lopez, of Sioux Falls, S.D., was ordered deported after he pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting possession of cocaine. The crime is a felony under South Dakota state law, but only a misdemeanor under the federal Controlled Substances Act if it is a first offense for cocaine possession, as it was in Lopez' case.
Still, an immigration judge and review panel as well as a federal appeals court all concluded that Lopez' crime should be considered an "aggravated felony" that severely limits immigrants' ability to fight off deportation, be granted asylum or become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Lopez has a wife and two children and before the immigration judge's ruling, he was released on good behavior after serving 15 months of a five-year prison sentence. His parole officer called him one of the best parolees he had ever had.
Lopez' case is consolidated with that of Reymundo Toledo-Flores, a Mexican national who is objecting to having his latest conviction for illegally entering the United States classified as an aggravated felony.
The government is asking the court to rule against the immigrants. The American Bar Association, and civil and immigrant rights groups want immigration judges to have greater discretion in deportation proceedings and object to categorizing relatively minor drug possession crimes as aggravated felonies.
In the death penalty case, California prosecutors want the court to reinstate the death penalty for a man convicted of killing a 19-year-old woman during a burglary.
Fernando Belmontes won a reversal of his death sentence when a federal appeals court said a jury instruction failed to inform the panel that he could live a productive life behind bars based on his good behavior during an earlier commitment to a California correctional facility for youth.
Belmontes beat Steacy McConnell to death with a dumbbell bar in the burglary of her Victor, Calif., home in 1981.
The consolidated immigration case is Lopez v. Gonzales, 05-547, Toledo-Flores v. United States, 05-7664.
The California death penalty case is Ayers v. Belmontes, 05-493.