UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the court’s more liberal justices last month in its opinion in Sessions v. Dimaya, he helped to free from federal custody a client of the Penn State Law Civil Rights Appellate Clinic.
After completing his criminal sentence and then being held in “custodial custody” for almost five years, 79-year-old Carlton Baptiste was released to the custody of his family on April 27. The Civil Rights Appellate Clinic was appointed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to represent Baptiste almost three years ago. The clinic students battled for his release in litigation before the immigration courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals, federal district court, the Third Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court. In his walk to freedom, Baptiste was represented by dozens of Penn State Law clinic students.
“A lot of great people clocked a lot of hours to secure Mr. Baptiste's rights,” said third-year student Andy Low. “His release is the right thing to do for him, his family, and the country. Personally, I'm ecstatic for him and for everyone who has seen the hard work they put in to secure his freedom bear fruit.”
“It's easy to forget the human impact that a ruling from the Supreme Court can have,” said alumna Rachel M. Naquin ’17, an associate at Gainsburgh, Benjamin, David, Meunier & Warshauer, LLC, in New Orleans. “I have followed Mr. Baptiste's case even after graduation, and I am honored to have contributed to the work that earned his freedom during my time at the clinic. It is an indescribable feeling knowing that we succeeded not only in obtaining justice for Mr. Baptiste, but also in protecting the rights of all immigrants.”
In Sessions v. Dimaya, the Supreme Court considered the case of James Garcia Dimaya, a lawful resident of the United States who was convicted of two crimes and was subject to an order of removal from the Board of Immigration Appeals. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), any noncitizen convicted of an “aggravated felony”—defined as a “crime of violence”—is subject to deportation and not eligible for relief. In its 5-4 ruling, the court found that the definition of a crime of violence, as described in Section 16(b) of Title 18 of the United States Code, is unconstitutionally vague.
The Civil Rights Appellate Clinic had a nearly identical case before the Supreme Court in Sessions v. Baptiste. Baptiste was fighting deportation under an order of removal from the Board of Immigration Appeals for crimes he committed in 1978 and 2009.
Penelope Scudder, a 2016 graduate of Penn State Law and former member of the clinic, argued Baptiste on behalf of the clinic before the Third Circuit in April 2016. Scudder, who has continued to work pro bono on Baptiste as an associate at Weissman & Mintz LLC in New Jersey, argued that the Board of Immigration Appeals cannot legally deport Baptiste because his crime did not constitute an aggravated felony or a crime involving moral turpitude and because a portion of the INA under which Baptiste would be deported is unconstitutionally void for vagueness.
In November 2016, a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit issued a decision agreeing with the clinic’s argument that the definition of a “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague. The Department of Justice appealed to the Supreme Court, and the clinic, in its Brief in Opposition to Petition for Writ of Certiorari, argued that the court should hold the case until it decided Dimaya.
Days after the Dimaya opinion, the Justice Department released Baptiste from custody.
“One of the most rewarding professional experiences by far was waiting at the Essex County Correctional Facility with Mr. Baptiste’s family and finally seeing the doors opening and Mr. Baptiste released,” said Scudder.
The Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, directed by Assistant Dean of Clinics and Experiential Learning Michael Foreman, is one of nine legal clinics available to Penn State Law students, provides intensive training in appellate advocacy by involving students in noncriminal civil rights cases before state appellate courts, federal courts of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Students conduct research, draft briefs, assist in case selection, develop substantive legal positions, and plan appellate strategy.