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Divna Maslenjak v. United States, USSC No. 16-309, cert. granted 1/13/2017

Question presented:

Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit erred by holding, in direct conflict with the Courts of Appeals for the First, Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits, that a naturalized American citizen can be stripped of her citizenship in a criminal proceeding based on an immaterial false statement.

Lower court opinion: United States v. Maslenjak, 821 F.3d 675 (6th Cir. 2016); USSC Docket; Scotusblog page.

This case is not directly relevant to state practice, but it will be of potential interest to federal practitioners, given that our circuit has putatively taken one side of the circuit split in United States v. Latchin, 554 F.3d 709, 712-15 (7th Cir. 2009).

Maslenjak, a Bosnian Serb, came to the U.S. fleeing the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Maslenjak was granted refugee status and ultimately obtained her naturalization. During proceedings to obtain refugee status Maslenjak claimed she and her family feared persecution in Bosnia because her husband had evaded conscription into the Serbian army during the war. But it turns out Maslenjak’s husband had not only been in the Serbian militia during the war, he had served as an officer in a unit implicated in war crimes. Based on her misrepresentations during the immigration process, she was convicted of knowingly procuring her naturalization contrary to law in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a) and had her citizenship revoked under 8 U.S.C. § 1451(e) as a mandatory and automatic consequence of her conviction.

She argued that to be convicted under § 1425(a), the government must prove her false statement was material to her refugee application, but the Sixth Circuit disagreed. It noted the term appears nowhere in the statute and rejected as “unpersuasive” the decisions in the other circuits, where it appears the government for various reasons didn’t contest whether there’s a materiality requirement. At least one of those decisions, however, reasoned that materiality is an implied element because the alternative civil path to revoking citizenship, 8 U.S.C. § 1451(a), explicitly requires materiality, and it doesn’t make sense that Congress would require materiality for one path but not the other. See, e.g.United States v. Puerta, 982 F.2d 1297, 1299-1301 (9th Cir. 1992). The Supreme Court’s decision will resolve the question.

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