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Supreme Court Overturns Lower Court On Grounds For Stripping U.S. Citizenship

The Supreme Court says a lower court erred in its guidance to a jury about the standard for stripping a refugee of her American citizenship.
Aaron P. Bernstein
Getty Images
The Supreme Court says a lower court erred in its guidance to a jury about the standard for stripping a refugee of her American citizenship.

A naturalized U.S. citizen should not have been stripped of her citizenship for the sole reason that she lied to U.S. officials, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday, vacating a lower court's decision. The plaintiff, an ethnic Serb who entered the U.S. as a refugee, had argued that false answers she gave to immigration officials were immaterial to procuring citizenship.

"We have never read a statute to strip citizenship from someone who met the legal criteria for acquiring it," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the court's opinion. "We will not start now."

The case centers on Divna Maslenjak, who entered the U.S. in 2000 as a refugee along with her husband and their two children. Maslenjak became a naturalized citizen in 2007 — but around the same time, she was found to have lied to U.S. officials when she said her husband had not participated in Bosnia's civil war. In fact, he served in a brigade that was involved in the notorious Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims in 1995.

During the original trial in a federal district court, a jury was told that making a false statement under oath to a government official was enough to revoke Maslenjak's citizenship because of a law that makes it a crime for a person to "procure" naturalization "contrary to law." After the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, the case went to the high court.

"At oral argument, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed real reservations about stripping citizenship without proof of materiality," NPR's Nina Totenberg reports, "and the court has historically been reluctant to strip citizenship without the government meeting a high bar of proof."

The Supreme Court justices say the lower court's instructions to the jurors were "in error" and that while the jury could have been asked to convict Maslenjak under a number of circumstances — if it found her false testimony to be proof of "bad moral character," for instance — it was not asked to do so, and so it did not make any of those determinations.

The statute against knowingly procuring naturalization contrary to U.S. law, Kagan wrote, "is not a tool for denaturalizing people who, the available evidence indicates, were actually qualified for the citizenship they obtained."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.