Justice Jackson writes ruling for trans woman who fled violence in Guatemala

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Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a Supreme Court opinion published Thursday siding with a transgender woman from Guatemala fighting her removal from the United States. It was a commonsense decision, but don’t expect too many more reasonable ones as we approach the end of the term, with rulings still pending on affirmative action, voting rights, student debt relief and more.

In Thursday’s case, the woman, Estrella Santos-Zacaria, had testified that she fears returning to Guatemala “because she suffered physical harm and faced death threats as a transgender woman who is attracted to men.” She sought protection from removal because she said she’d be persecuted in her native country.

But the right-wing 5th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected her claim, essentially saying she hadn’t jumped through enough administrative hoops, or “exhausted” her litigation. That failure, the 5th Circuit reasoned, meant she ran afoul of a “jurisdictional” requirement and so her claim had to be dismissed.

Yet, Jackson’s opinion Thursday rejected the 5th Circuit’s harsh ruling. “If exhaustion is jurisdictional,” Jackson wrote, “litigants must slog through preliminary nonjudicial proceedings even when, for example, no party demands it or a court finds it would be pointless, wasteful, or too slow.” The justices sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings, giving Santos-Zacaria another chance to prove her immigration case.

This commonsense decision was basically unanimous, though Justice Samuel Alito felt the need to add a short opinion of his own, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, arguing that Jackson’s opinion didn’t need to go as far as it did in the woman’s favor.

As we approach the term’s more contentious decisions, expect the views of Alito and Thomas to prevail.

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