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The Supreme Court plunged into arguments Tuesday over the deportation of immigrants convicted of crimes, the first case in a term expected to more clearly define the Court’s direction under Chief Justice John Roberts. Though the hallmark cases of the first full term for the current lineup of justices will come later when the Court hears disputes over abortion, race and the environment, the outcome of the first case on the schedule could affect thousands of immigrants who have run afoul of U.S. criminal law. Justices closely questioned lawyers from both sides as the Bush administration asserted that immigrants convicted of state drug felonies are deportable even if the same crimes are considered only misdemeanors under federal law. Disagreeing were attorneys for two men, including a small businessman who has been a permanent U.S. resident for 16 years. Justices struggled with the meaning of the federal statute, with Justice Stephen Breyer at one point calling it “perfectly ambiguous.” One of the two immigrants has already been deported to Mexico, leaving his lawyer hard-pressed to convince Justice Antonin Scalia that the case is not moot. Supervised release of a convicted criminal “is impossible once he leaves the country,” Scalia pointed out. Court arguments were starting a day later than usual. The traditional start of the Court’s term was Monday, which this year fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. The court met briefly for routine business without Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, who are Jewish. A year ago, the new chief justice was officiating at his first session and President George W. Bush had not yet revealed his choice to fill the seat of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had announced her retirement. Bush’s first pick, White House counsel Harriet Miers, eventually withdrew her nomination because of fierce opposition from conservatives who usually are allies of the president. Justice Samuel Alito was nominated at the end of October and took his seat on the Court three months later. In the case involving the two immigrants, Jose Anonio Lopez, a Mexican national who has resided in the state of South Dakota since 1990, was ordered deported after he pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting possession of cocaine. The crime is a felony under South Dakota state law, but only a misdemeanor under the federal Controlled Substances Act if it is a first offense for cocaine possession, as it was in Lopez’s case. Still, an immigration judge and review panel as well as a federal appeals court all concluded that Lopez’s crime should be considered an “aggravated felony” that severely limits immigrants’ ability to fight off deportation, be granted asylum or become naturalized U.S. citizens. Lopez has a wife and two children, and before the immigration judge’s ruling, he was released on good behavior after serving 15 months of a five-year prison sentence. His parole officer called him one of the best parolees he had ever had. Lopez’s case is consolidated with that of Reymundo Toledo-Flores, a Mexican national who is objecting to having his latest conviction for illegally entering the United States classified as an aggravated felony. The government is asking the Court to rule against the immigrants. The American Bar Association as well as civil and immigrant rights groups want immigration judges to have greater discretion in deportation proceedings and object to categorizing relatively minor drug possession crimes as aggravated felonies. In the death penalty case, California prosecutors want the court to reinstate the death penalty for a man convicted of killing a 19-year-old woman during a burglary. Fernando Belmontes won a reversal of his death sentence when a federal appeals court said a jury instruction failed to inform the panel that he could live a productive life behind bars based on his good behavior during an earlier commitment to a California correctional facility for youth. Belmontes beat Steacy McConnell to death with a dumbbell bar in the burglary of her California home in 1981. Associated Press writer Pete Yost contributed to this report. Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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