Vartelas v. Holder


In Vartelas v. Holder, the Supreme Court held that an immigration law enacted by Congress to exclude entry by aliens convicted of a crime of moral turpitude could not be applied retroactively. A felon who pled guilty in 1994 could not be barred from entering the country based on a law that Congress passed in 1996.

The appellant was a native of Greece who was subjected to removal proceedings one week after arriving back in the United States after a brief visit to his parents overseas. The government cited the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which imposed requirements on entry by aliens convicted of certain felonies. He appealed his removal, but the Second Circuit held that the law applied to conduct that occurred before the law was passed.


The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the Second Circuit’s ruling. Writing for the majority, Justice Ginsburg explained that the law was not intended to be applied retroactively. Congress did not specifically address whether the law applied to conduct that occurred before it was passed. There is a presumption against retroactively applying statutes unless Congress specifically says something to the contrary.

In this case, the Court explained that Vartelas’ conduct was not in connection with his trip to Greece. Theoretically, had he engaged in misconduct after the passage of the statute, he could have legally been removed from the country. However, his felony conviction was two years before the law was passed. The Second Circuit held that Vartelas had to make a demonstration that he relied on the previous statutory regime in traveling overseas, but the Supreme Court explained that reliance is not a requirement for the presumption against retroactivity to apply. Vartelas had previously been allowed to visit Greece and the only thing that changed, according to the Court, was the passage of the statute.


Writing for the dissent, Justice Scalia took a different view of what retroactivity meant in terms of this statute. According to the dissent, the point at which retroactivity applied was the time when Vartelas was readmitted into the country after his trip to Greece. Thus, there was no retroactive application of the statute because retroactivity did not apply to the point in time when he was convicted. As a result of this ruling, individuals convicted of certain crimes should not be subject to removal upon reentry to the United States.

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