The ruling brought an impassioned dissent from Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who read part of it from the bench to underscore his disagreement.
In a splintered 5 to 3 decision, the court’s conservatives said that the relevant statute does not even “hint,” as Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote, at the broad reading of the right to bail hearings adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
That court had ruled that an immigrant held in detention must be given a bond hearing every six months and that detention beyond the initial six-month period is permitted only if the government proved that further detention is justified.
Alito rejected that standard. He said the more natural reading of the law at stake is that it authorizes detention “until the end of the applicable proceedings,” and that “there is no justification for any of the procedural requirements” that the appeals court added.
The court sent the case back to the lower court, however, to analyze whether the Constitution requires such hearings.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ahilan Arulanantham, who argued the Supreme Court case, said the decision gives his organization a second chance.
“We have shown through this case that when immigrants get a fair hearing, judges often release them based on their individual circumstances,” he said in a statement.
“We look forward to going back to the lower courts to show that these statutes, now interpreted by the Supreme Court to require detention without any hearing, violate the Due Process Clause,” he said.
In his dissent, Breyer said the lower court read the statute the only way it could to keep from finding it unconstitutional.
“The many thousands of individuals involved in this case are persons who believe they have a right to enter into or remain in the United States, and a sizable number turn out to be right,” Breyer said from the bench.
But he said some of them remain in detention for years because the government reads the law as denying them hearings made available “even for those accused of serious crimes.” He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
Alito called the dissent an “utterly implausible” reading of the statute.
The six-month deadline that the 9th Circuit set applied to a wide variety of immigrants, including people detained after entering the United States for the first time and longtime legal residents.
The case was brought by Alejandro Rodriguez, a lawful permanent resident who came to the country as an infant. The Department of Homeland Security started removal proceedings because of a conviction for drug possession and an earlier conviction for joyriding.
Rodriguez, who was working as a dental assistant, was held for three years before he challenged his confinement; he has since won his case. The average detention for the others who joined his lawsuit was 13 months.
Although the Obama administration also held that the law did not require hearings, the case took on heightened significance as Trump has vowed to broadly increase immigration enforcement across the United States. Immigration arrests are up sharply since he took office last January, but deportations are down this year, in part because of a significant drop in illegal crossings on the southern border with Mexico.
Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Gorsuch, said he would have dismissed the case because he believes the courts do not have the power to hear the claims. But since the majority disagreed, he joined the resolution of the case.
Justice Elena Kagan took part in earlier hearings in the case but recused herself belatedly. She realized that she had authorized a pleading in the case while serving as President Barack Obama’s solicitor general.
The case is Jennings v. Rodriguez.
Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.