Kungys v. United States

485 U. S. 759

May 2, 1988

A man named Juozas Kungys lied several times about his biography when applying for a visa, and later when applying for citizenship. When this came to light decades later (together with the suggestion that he might have been a Nazi criminal), a denaturalization process was begun. At issue was whether his biographical lies were “material” for the procurement of naturalization, and whether the lies were sufficient to show bad moral character – in either event, his citizenship could then be revoked.

With Kennedy not participating, there was a confusing tangle of opinions. Scalia, had a majority for two points, joined by Rehnquist, Brennan, White, and O’Connor. First, by looking at the standards and definitions from the perjury context, Scalia held that lies were “material” if they had a natural tendency to influence the decisions of the naturalization decisionmakers. Second, lies need not be “material” to show bad moral character, because the plain language of the statute did not require it. While a similar statute had previously been interpreted to require that lies be “material,” it contained the word “misrepresentation,” which Scalia said was shorthand for material lies. Scalia hastened to add that, according to government policy, lies (whether material or immaterial) only showed bad character if they were made with the exact purpose of gaining immigration benefits.

In a portion joined by only Rehnquist, Brennan, and O’Connor, Scalia said that the case needed to be remanded to determine whether or not Kungys had lied for the exact purpose of gaining immigration benefits. This effectively became the Court’s final judgment on the matter. In a portion joined by only Rehnquist and Brennan, he said that the biographical lies were irrelevant enough to be immaterial. He also contended that if material lies are made, and citizenship is subsequently obtained, there is then a rebuttable presumption that the material lies procured the naturalization, which the naturalized person can then rebut through the preponderance of the evidence standard. Brennan, in a concurrence, emphasized that government would need to do a really thorough job in alleging that a material lie helped to procure naturalization.

Stevens, in an opinion joined by Marshall and Blackmun, found denaturalization a horrific punishment, and read the statutes to make it really hard. With reference to tort law, he interpreted “material” to mean that naturalization would not have been granted but for the lies. He also stressed that every single burden of proof in denaturalization cases should fall on the government. With respect to the requirement of good moral character, Stevens, by citing an analogous statute, contended that the lies would indeed need to be “material” (as he defined that word), to show bad moral character on the part of the applicant.

O’Connor, though joining most of Scalia’s opinion, wrote in a short dissent that the lies made by Kungys really were material. White, in his own dissent, was even more forceful that Kungys ought to be denaturalized. His long pattern of biographical lies, all made while trying to gain citizenship, clearly showed bad moral character. Furthermore, the lies were material because the immigration decisionmakers would surely have investigated more closely had they seen the change in biographical facts between the visa application and the citizenship application. White also expressed hope that the lower court, on remand, would look more seriously into the Nazi allegation.

… as I said, it’s an awful tangle of opinions and legal points. I hope I rarely have to write posts this long in the future.

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