It’s not every day that the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court confesses to a crime, but Maslenjak v. United States was far from any case. On Thursday, the Supreme Court unanimously refused to give the U.S. government leeway to potentially strip millions of naturalized Americans of their citizenship.
The high-stakes case revolved around Divna Maslenjak, a former refugee to the United States. In the ‘90s, Maslenjak told U.S. immigration officials that she feared for the safety of her family, and that her husband worried he would be conscripted into military service if the family was forced to stay in war-torn Bosnia .
In fact, Maslenjak’s husband Ratko did serve in the Bosnian Serb army, and records of his service “contained significant evidence” that he committed war crimes, including participation in the July 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, according to court documents. Immigration officials discovered this several years after granting refugee status to the Maslenjaks, and deported the couple — Ratko for his alleged role in the massacre, and Divna for lying about it, even though Divna had been naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
But Divna challenged her deportation, arguing it didn’t matter if she had lied, because the government labeled her a refugee based on her fear of persecution by Bosnian Muslims. Justice Department lawyers contended that just the fact that Maslenjak had lied was enough to take away her American citizenship.
The question before the Supreme Court was almost comically simple: If someone seeking U.S. citizenship tells tells a lie or commits a crime while applying for citizenship, no matter how small or trivial, is that enough to justify stripping that person of citizenship, even years later?
The answer, the justices unanimously ruled Thursday, was no, though their finding wasn’t a surprise — in arguments in April, they seemed both incredulous about and horrified by the idea.
“Some time ago, outside the statute of limitations, I drove 60 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone. I was not arrested,” Chief Justice John Roberts confessed at the time, asking what would have happened if he had failed to mention that crime while applying for U.S. citizenship.
“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?” he said.
Robert Parker, an attorney for the Department of Justice, affirmed: “If we can prove that you deliberately lied in answering that question, then yes.”
“It seems to me that your argument is demeaning the priceless value of citizenship,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said.
The Supreme Court instead ruled that in order to strip someone of citizenship, the government must prove that person committed a crime or told a lie that actually affected the citizenship application process. To find otherwise would mean that “a lie told in the naturalization process — even out of embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy — would always provide a basis for rescinding citizenship. The government could thus take away on one day what it was required to give the day before… [That] opens the door to a world of disquieting consequences,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion.
Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, Maslenjak’s ability to return to the United States as a citizen remains uncertain. Her case has been sent back to the lower courts, who will decide whether her alleged lies about potential war crimes still qualify her for deportation.