January 21, 2021 Feature

SCOTUS Guides Lower Court to Stay in Its Lane

Departure from party presentation principle found to be abuse of discretion

By Stephen Carr

A U.S. Supreme Court case ended in a reversal, but not for any of the reasons argued by the parties. Rather, the Supreme Court faulted an appeals panel for reversing the defendant’s conviction based on an argument that, ironically, neither of the parties had raised. The Court noted that the appellate court’s handling of the case violated the principle of party presentation, which requires courts to decide cases based on the arguments presented by the parties. The Court acknowledged that the doctrine is not “ironclad,” going so far as to include an appendix of decisions in which the Supreme Court had appointed amici to argue issues not presented by the parties. But the Court chastised the appellate court, acknowledging that while courts are not “hidebound” to the arguments presented by the parties, the appellate court’s “radical transformation of this case goes well beyond the pale.”

The lower courts ruled on issues not brought forth by the involved parties—SCOTUS instructed them to stay in their lanes

The lower courts ruled on issues not brought forth by the involved parties—SCOTUS instructed them to stay in their lanes

Photo illustration by Elmarie Jara | Getty Images

ABA Litigation Section leaders say that the case is an important reminder of the basic structure of our adversarial legal system and contains important lessons for litigators presenting arguments before trial and appellate courts.

Immigration Lawyer Crosses the Border into Criminal Territory

The decision arose from a criminal case with immigration undertones. The defendant, Evelyn Sineneng-Smith, was a lawyer turned immigration consultant who marketed her services to immigrant workers in the home healthcare industry, especially recent arrivals from the Philippines. The defendant deceived her clients into believing that she could help them get their green cards by first filing for work authorization in the United States on their behalf and then, after establishing a work history, petitioning for an adjustment of status to become permanent residents.

Despite the fact that most of her clients had little money, the defendant would require them to sign lucrative retainer agreements, charging $5,900 to file an application for work authorization and an additional $900 to file an application for permanent residency. The government estimated that she collected over $3 million for her work.

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