Summer SCOTUS Roundup: Materiality and Fraudulently Obtained Citizenship in Maslenjak v. United States

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By Natalia Holliday, Web Editor

Three years after the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s, Petitioner Divna Maslenjak and her non-party husband Ratko sought refugee status in the United States for fear of persecution from both sides of the conflict.[1] As Serbs living in Bosnia, Maslenjak held that Muslims would abuse them for their ethnicity.[2] Yet, because Ratko had evaded service in the army during the conflict and fled to Serbia in hiding, the family also feared persecution from the Serbs.[3] A U.S. Immigration official bought the story, and in 2000, the family immigrated to the United States.[4]

Maslenjak was naturalized as a citizen in 2007,[5] but by 2006, the refugee story already began to unravel.[6] Ratko did not flee Bosnia; he served in the Bosnian Serb Army as an officer.[7] Worse yet, he even participated in the horrific Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered.[8]

During Ratko’s deportation proceedings in 2007, the newly naturalized Maslenjak admitted to knowing the truth all along.[9] As a result, Maslenjak lied under oath in obtaining her citizenship.[10] Question 23 of the application asks whether the applicant ever gave “false or misleading information” to a government official to obtain immigration status;[11] Question 24 asks whether the applicant ever “lied to a [ ] government official to gain entry or admission into the United States.”[12] Maslenjak answered “no” to both.[13]

The U.S. government charged Maslenjak with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a) by “knowingly procur[ing her naturalization] . . . contrary to law.”[14] According to the government, Maslenjak acted contrary to the law by violating 18 U.S.C. § 1015(a), which prohibits “knowingly” making false statements under oath in any proceeding relating to naturalization.[15] Whether the statements affected the naturalization decision was irrelevant; they need only have been made.[16]

Maslenjak contested that the statements must have been material to the naturalization decision to warrant the revocation of her citizenship for violating Section 1425.[17] The District Court and Sixth Circuit found for the government and agreed that the statements need not be material — creating a Circuit split.[18] The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the split and determine the issue of materiality and “unlawful” procurement under Section 1425.[19]

The Court was unpersuaded by the government’s “chronology” argument, noting that the “natural understanding” of Section 1425 is that the illegal act must have contributed to the procurement of citizenship.[20] It gave examples to further demonstrate the argument’s absurdity. For instance, if a man obtains a painting illegally, it is naturally assumed that he stole it, forged a check, or committed some act that directly made his act of procurement illegal. But if the man merely made an illegal turn on the way to the auction house? It would be nonsensical to say he procured the painting illegally.[21]

With naturalization, the same logic applies: The illegality must tie into the acquisition.[22] As an example more related to naturalization, suppose an applicant does not disclose that she has a knife tucked into her pocket while filing out her naturalization paperwork. She has violated a law by possessing a weapon in a federal building, but that violation was simply coincidental and not causal. Under the rules of natural language usage, she has not procured naturalization illegally, because her illegal act did not effectuate her citizenship.[23]

Up to this point, Justice Gorsuch concurred, but he deemed it an overreach for the Court to go on to give guidance on how to apply the new rule.[24] Rather, Justice Gorsuch opined that the lower courts should go through the natural judicial process with only the new rule that materiality matters, and the Supreme Court will hear future conflicts that arise.[25] “This Court,” he concluded, “often speaks most wisely when it speaks last.”[26]

Noting the Court’s responsibility to provide guidance to lower courts, the majority disagreed and developed a test to determine whether a false statement “sufficiently altered [the naturalization process] as to have influenced an award of citizenship.”[27] When an applicant gives a false statement that is directly incompatible with a requirement for naturalization, the process is quick and easy. The government exposes the lie, and citizenship is revoked with the justification that had the applicant been truthful in the application, she would not have been granted citizenship to begin with.[28]

However, the Court recognized that the facts behind some false statements are not per se incompatible with the laws of citizenship; rather, they can lead to the discovery of other facts that are.[29] In such circumstances, the government can meet its burden by showing (1) the misrepresentation was “sufficiently relevant” to the naturalization as that it would have prompted investigation into the applicant’s citizenship qualifications, and (2) the investigation would predictably have uncovered disqualifying information.[30] The predictability standard reflects the realistic and understandable issues that follow from a hindered investigation, especially faded evidence.[31]

Still, if a defendant rebuts the government’s case by demonstrating through a preponderance of the evidence that the false statement did not meet the statutory requirement for denial of citizenship, and she was in fact qualified for citizenship, this acts as a complete defense to prosecution brought under Section 1425(a).[32]

Under the new rule and direction set forth by the majority, the Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.[33] It is surely a close call, given the facts of the case, but the overall opinion that materiality matters is arguably well-reasoned. Justice Gorsuch recognized the majority’s sound reasoning, but also demonstrated his conservative view of the Court’s power. Overall, Maslenjak v. United States was sensible and straightforward, and at 16 pages, the brevity of the opinion showed as much.



[1] Maslenjak v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1918, 1923 (2017).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 1924.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 1925.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 1931.

[25] Id. at 1931-32.

[26] Id. at 1932,

[27] Id. at 1927-28.

[28] Id.em> at 1928.

[29] Id. at 1929.

[30] Id. at 1929.

[31] Id.

[32] Id. at 1930.

[33] Id. at 1931.

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