In Sessions v. Dimaya,1 Justice Gorsuch concurred in the judgment of a fragmented Supreme Court but only in part of the plurality opinion by four other justices. Justice Gorsuch wrote a separate opinion to explain something he (but not the plurality) thinks is fundamental about due process. His concurring opinion highlights how civil cases, including forfeitures, now frequently impose harsher penalties than criminal prosecutions.

Dimaya involved federal statutes authorizing deportation of criminal aliens. The law designates specific crimes which, when an alien is convicted of them, allow nearly automatic deportation. It also has a “catch-all” provision that includes any felony that “by its nature” involves “substantial risk” of “physical force” against property or another person.2 The question in Dimaya was whether this catch-all provision was so vague that it did not provide fair notice about what crimes carry the risk of deportation, thereby violating the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The plurality (Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor) and Justice Gorsuch answered Yes, and together they held the statute void for vagueness. Dimaya, the convicted alien, won; Attorney General Sessions lost.

Justice Gorsuch’s opinion about why the winner won takes a different tack than the plurality took. Civil asset forfeiture is key to understanding why.

Deportation, like most forfeitures, is a civil matter, even after an alien is convicted and even though deportation is “a particularly severe penalty which may be of greater concern to a convicted alien than any potential jail sentence.”3 More than one commentator quickly noted that Justice Gorsuch did not join the plurality’s opinion that “the most exacting vagueness standard should apply to removal cases, because the penalty of deportation is so severe.”4

That’s where Justice Gorsuch draws the line. “My colleagues suggest the law before us should be assessed under the fair notice standard because of the special gravity of its civil deportation penalty. But, grave as that penalty may be, I cannot see why we would single it out for special treatment when (again) so many civil laws today impose so many similarly sever sanctions.”5

Enter forfeiture.

Ours is a world filled with more and more civil laws bearing more and more extravagant punishments. Today’s “civil” penalties include confiscatory rather than compensatory fines, forfeiture provisions that allow homes to be taken…. Some of these penalties are routinely imposed and are routinely graver than those associated with misdemeanor crimes—and often harsher than the punishment for felonies. And not only are punitive civil sanctions … rapidly expanding, they are sometimes more severely punitive than the parallel criminal sanctions for the same conduct. … Given all this, any suggestion that criminal cases warrant a heightened standard of review does more to persuade me that the criminal standard should be set above our precedent’s current threshold than to suggest the civil standard should be buried below it.

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Why, for example, would due process require Congress to speak more clearly when it seeks to deport a lawfully resident alien than when it wishes to … confiscate [a citizen’s] home? I can think of no good answer.”6

Tyler Arnold and I have made similar points here about civil asset forfeiture. Justice Gorsuch’s point is both broader (also touching civil commitments and broad business licensing requirements) and narrower (not foreclosing the possibility that particular civil forfeitures can meet the requirements of the Due Process Clause) than ours. So be careful what you wish for. A constitutional due process challenge to civil asset forfeiture generally could still come out exactly wrong at this Supreme Court.

Mike Geske is counsel at Cause of Action Institute

Sessions v. Dimaya, 584 U.S.       , 138 S.Ct. 1204, 200 L. Ed. 549, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 2497 (April 17, 2018).

2 See 18 U.S.C. §16(b); see also 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(43).

3 Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. at 1213, 200 L. Ed. at 558, 2018 LEXIS 2497 at * 15-16 (Kagan, J., plurality op.) (citations and quotations omitted).

4 Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. at 1213, 200 L. Ed. at 557-58, 2018 LEXIS 2497 at * 15 (Kagan, J., plurality op.) (citations and quotations omitted).

5 Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. at 1231, 200 L. Ed. at 578, 2018 LEXIS 2497 at * 56 (Gorsuch, J., concurring in part, concurring in judgment) (citations and quotations omitted).

6 Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. at 1229, 1231, 200 L. Ed. at 575-76, 578, 2018 LEXIS 2497 at *52-53, *56-57 (Gorsuch, J., concurring in part, concurring in judgment) (citations and quotations omitted; emphases by Justice Gorsuch).