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Gorsuch versus Thomas on Vagueness
Michael Ramsey

Yesterday's Supreme Court decision in Sessions v. Dimaya held that part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, providing for removal of aliens convicted of a violent felony, was void for vagueness.  Justice Gorsuch (concurring, providing the fifth vote) and Justice Thomas (in dissent) disagreed over the originalist foundations of the vagueness doctrine.

From Justice Thomas' dissent:

First, the vagueness doctrine is not legitimate unless the “law of the land” view of due process is incorrect. Under that view, due process “require[s] only that our Government . . . proceed . . . according to written constitutional and statutory provision[s] before depriving someone of life, liberty, or property.” Nelson v. Colorado, 581 U. S. ___, ___, n. 1 (2017) (THOMAS, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 2, n. 1) (internal quotation marks omitted). More than a half century after the founding, the Court rejected this view of due process in Murray’s Lessee v. Hoboken Land & Improvement Co., 18 How. 272 (1856). See id., at 276 (holding that the Due Process Clause “is a restraint on the legislative as well as on the executive and judicial powers of the government”). But the textual and historical support for the law-of-the-land view is not insubstantial.

[Footnote:  See, e.g., In re Winship, 397 U. S. 358, 382–384 (1970) (Black, J., dissenting); Rosenkranz, The Objects of the Constitution, 63 Stan. L. Rev. 1005, 1041–1043 (2011); Berger, “Law of the Land” Reconsidered, 74 Nw. U. L. Rev. 1, 2–17 (1979); Corwin, The Doctrine of Due Process of Law Before the Civil War, 24 Harv. L. Rev. 366, 368–373 (1911); see also 4 The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 35 (Syrett & Cooke eds. 1962) (“The words ‘due process’ have a precise technical import, and . . . can never be referred to an act of legislature”).]

Even under Murray’s Lessee, the vagueness doctrine is legitimate only if it is a “settled usag[e] and mod[e] of proceeding existing in the common and statute law of England, before the emigration of our ancestors.” Id., at 277. That proposition is dubious. Until the end of the 19th century, “there is little indication that anyone . . . believed that courts had the power under the Due Process Claus[e] to nullify statutes on [vagueness] ground[s].” Johnson, supra, at ___ (opinion of THOMAS, J.). That is not because Americans were unfamiliar with vague laws. Rather, early American courts, like their English predecessors, addressed vague laws through statutory construction instead of constitutional law. See Note, Void for Vagueness: An Escape From Statutory Interpretation, 23 Ind. L. J. 272, 274–279 (1948). They invoked the rule of lenity and declined to apply vague penal statutes on a case-by-case basis. The modern vagueness doctrine, which claims the judicial authority to “strike down” vague legislation on its face, did not emerge until the turn of the 20th century.

(Thomas goes on to argue on originalist grounds that even if the vagueness doctrine applies to criminal statutes, it does not apply immigration removal decisions.)

Gorsuch responds at length (some citations and footnotes omitted):

I begin with a foundational question. Writing for the Court in Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), Justice Scalia held the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act void for vagueness because it invited “more unpredictability and arbitrariness” than the Constitution allows. Because the residual clause in the statute now before us uses almost exactly the same language as the residual clause in Johnson, respect for precedent alone would seem to suggest that both clauses should suffer the same judgment.

But first in Johnson and now again today JUSTICE THOMAS has questioned whether our vagueness doctrine can fairly claim roots in the Constitution as originally understood. For its part, the Court has yet to offer a reply. I believe our colleague’s challenge is a serious and thoughtful one that merits careful attention. At day’s end, though, it is a challenge to which I find myself unable to subscribe. Respectfully, I am persuaded instead that void for vagueness doctrine, at least properly conceived, serves as a faithful expression of ancient due process and separation of powers principles the framers recognized as vital to ordered liberty under our Constitution.

Consider first the doctrine’s due process underpinnings. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee that “life, liberty, or property” may not be taken “without due process of law.” That means the government generally may not deprive a person of those rights without affording him the benefit of (at least) those “customary procedures to which freemen were entitled by the old law of England.” Pacific Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 499 U. S. 1, 28 (1991) (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment). Admittedly, some have suggested that the Due Process Clause does less work than this, allowing the government to deprive people of their liberty through whatever procedures (or lack of them) the government’s current laws may tolerate. But in my view the weight of the historical evidence shows that the clause sought to ensure that the people’s rights are never any less secure against governmental invasion than they were at common law. Lord Coke took this view of the English due process guarantee. 1 E. Coke, The Second Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England 50 (1797). John Rutledge, our second Chief Justice, explained that Coke’s teachings were carefully studied and widely adopted by the framers, becoming “‘almost the foundations of our law.’” Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U. S. 213, 225 (1967). And many more students of the Constitution besides—from Justice Story to Justice Scalia—have agreed that this view best represents the original understanding of our own Due Process Clause. See, e.g., Murray’s Lessee v. Hoboken Land & Improvement Co., 18 How. 272, 277 (1856); 3 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States §1783, p. 661 (1833); Pacific Mut., supra, at 28–29 (opinion of Scalia, J.); Eberle, Procedural Due Process: The Original Understanding, 4 Const. Comment. 339, 341 (1987).

Perhaps the most basic of due process’s customary protections is the demand of fair notice. See Connally v. General Constr. Co., 269 U. S. 385, 391 (1926); see also Note, Textualism as Fair Notice, 123 Harv. L. Rev. 542, 543 (2009) (“From the inception of Western culture, fair notice has been recognized as an essential element of the rule of law”). Criminal indictments at common law had to provide “precise and sufficient certainty” about the charges involved. 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 301 (1769) (Blackstone). Unless an “offence [was] set forth with clearness and certainty,” the indictment risked being held void in court. Id., at 302 (emphasis deleted); 2 W. Hawkins, Pleas of the Crown, ch. 25, §§99, 100, pp. 244–245 (2d ed. 1726) (“[I]t seems to have been anciently the common practice, where an indictment appeared to be [in]sufficient, either for its uncertainty or the want of proper legal words, not to put the defendant to answer it”).

The requirement of fair notice applied to statutes too. Blackstone illustrated the point with a case involving a statute that made “stealing sheep, or other cattle” a felony. 1 Blackstone 88 (emphasis deleted). Because the term “cattle” embraced a good deal more then than it does now (including wild animals, no less), the court held the statute failed to provide adequate notice about what it did and did not cover—and so the court treated the term “cattle” as a nullity. Ibid. All of which, Blackstone added, had the salutary effect of inducing the legislature to reenter the field and make itself clear by passing a new law extending the statute to “bulls, cows, oxen,” and more “by name.” Ibid.

This tradition of courts refusing to apply vague statutes finds parallels in early American practice as well. In The Enterprise, 8 F. Cas. 732 (No. 4,499) (CC NY 1810), for example, Justice Livingston found that a statute setting the circumstances in which a ship may enter a port during an embargo was too vague to be applied, concluding that “the court had better pass” the statutory terms by “as unintelligible and useless” rather than “put on them, at great uncertainty, a very harsh signification, and one which the legislature may never have designed.” Id., at 735. In United States v. Sharp, 27 F. Cas. 1041 (No. 16,264) (CC Pa. 1815), Justice Washington confronted a statute which prohibited seamen from making a “revolt.” Id., at 1043. But he was unable to determine the meaning of this provision “by any authority . . . either in the common, admiralty, or civil law.” Ibid. As a result, he declined to “recommend to the jury, to find the prisoners guilty of making, or endeavouring to make a revolt, however strong the evidence may be.” Ibid.