September 17, 2015 Articles

Federal Appeals Courts Must Exercise Jurisdiction over Decisions of the BIA

The Supreme Court's decision in Mata v. Lynch continues immigration law's march into the mainstream of American law.

By Kele Onyejekwe

A United States court of appeals always has jurisdiction to consider a final order of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) denying an immigrant’s motion to reopen. Reyes Mata v. Lynch, 135 S. Ct. 2150, 2153 (2015) [login required]. The BIA is the final administrative body interpreting and applying immigration laws. According to the Supreme Court, the appellate court has no choice: “[W]hen a federal court has jurisdiction, it has a virtually unflagging obligation to exercise it.” Id. at 2156 (internal quotations omitted). This is true whether the denial is based on a request for equitable tolling because of an extraordinary reason, such as ineffective assistance of counsel, or on any other reason.

In Mata, the Supreme Court emphasized that a court’s review power over a decision of the BIA is distinct from its power to affirm, reverse, or remand on the merits. “The jurisdictional question (whether the court has power to decide if tolling is proper) is of course distinct from the merits question (whether tolling is proper).” The Fifth Circuit confused these two distinct jurisdictional bases and held that it lacked jurisdiction over this case. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed its decision. Id. at 2156–57. Unlike the Fifth Circuit, 10 other courts of appeals, presented with the same question, exercised jurisdiction.

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