In Mathis v. Texas, the Supreme Court determined that the “categorical approach” in determining whether or not a prior conviction warrants deportation of criminal non-citizens. In this case, Richard Mathis was convicted of five burglaries in Iowa, when he was later prosecuted for owning a firearm as a felon, he was given the mandatory minimum of 15 years based on his prior convictions. However, he argued that the specific manner in which he committed those burglaries did not fall into the burglary category provided by the federal government. The state provided a much broader understanding of what constituted a burglary, which did not strictly align with the narrow categories covered by the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).


The Supreme Court ultimately overturned Mathis’ original judgment, sending a message that noncitizens will not be deported for crimes that do not strictly align with those the federal government connects to immigration consequences. In Mathis, the Supreme Court added another entry to its long line of precedent decisions reaffirming and strengthening use of the “categorical approach” as it applies to both Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) and the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The Court confirmed that under the categorical approach, a State criminal conviction cannot trigger removal from the US unless the elements of the State offense categorically match the elements of the generic offense referenced by the INA.


What does this all mean in a nutshell; that it is now harder to deport noncitizens with criminal convictions in the United States. What may be considered a felony under state law, may not be under the federal government. And unless the federal statute of a felony is satisfied, the noncitizen criminal will not be subject to deportation proceedings based on the criminal conviction.


What is interesting about the decision is that it points out that the Court’s opinion on the law itself is not an aspect they want to consider, but that they are merely following how it is written. “Some have raised concerns about this line of decisions, and suggested to Congress that it reconsider how ACCA is written … whether for good or for ill, the elements-based approach remains the law. And we will not introduce inconsistency and arbitrariness into our ACCA decisions …”


This desire to maintain consistency should not be viewed as a negative on the court, but more so on ensuring uniformity across the judiciary. If this categorical or ‘elements’-based approach is eliminated, judges will be allowed to find facts separate from the conviction itself to determine whether or not a defendant fits into the ACCA or INA category. This decision requires that all judges who encounter this issue in the future will have to strictly follow this elements-based approach in coming to their decision. If the next Congress decides to modify the law then the Supreme Court will likely have to hear another case in the future, but for now they have decided, whether for good or for bad, they have followed the law as it is written.