U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Denaturalization Case

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments, on April 26, 2017, in Maslenjak v. United States, a case regarding the denaturalization of a U.S. citizen due to false statements she made during the immigration process. The justices appeared skeptical of the government’s position – that any false statement made during the process could strip a naturalized citizen of U.S. citizenship regardless of its “materiality” – and may limit the government’s denaturalization authority in its ruling. A decision is expected before the end of June 2017.

Background: False Statements in the Immigration Process

The case involves Divna Maslenjak, an ethnic Serb from Bosnia who sought refugee status in the United States in the late 1990s. Maslenjak told U.S. immigration officials at the time that she feared persecution in her Muslim-majority region, as well as retribution from Serbs for her husband’s avoidance of conscription into the Bosnian Serb military. Maslenjak obtained refugee status in 1999 and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2007.

Later in 2007, it came to light that Maslenjak’s husband had in fact served in a Bosnian Serb military unit implicated in war crimes, and that they both had lied during the immigration process. Maslenjak was later tried and convicted of naturalization fraud for denying that she had ever made false statements to government officials on her application for naturalization (form N-400). She was stripped of her U.S. citizenship and later deported.

False Statements and “Materiality”

The legal question in this case involves the trial judge’s instructions to the jury. The judge informed jurors that, in order to strip Maslenjak of her citizenship, they only had to determine that she knowingly made false statements. The judge said they did not have to find that the false statements were “material” – or, in other words, that they affected the government’s decision to grant her immigration benefits.

Justices Skeptical of Government’s Position

During oral arguments, the Supreme Court justices repeatedly expressed skepticism at the government’s position: that any knowingly false statement is sufficient to denaturalize a U.S. citizen. They pointed out that the N-400 includes very broad questions. One, for example, asks whether an applicant has ever committed any “offense” for which she has not been arrested. Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that nearly every person has committed some minor offense that has gone undetected, such as speeding. He inquired whether anyone who sped and answered “no” to this question could be stripped of citizenship. When the government attorney answered “yes,” Justice Roberts stated incredulously, “Oh, come on.”

Other justices also seemed troubled by the expansive prosecutorial authority in the government’s strict and narrow interpretation, which would seemingly allow it to denaturalize large numbers of citizens. Justice Anthony Kennedy told the government attorney, “Your argument is demeaning the priceless value of citizenship.” By the end of the hearing, the justices’ skepticism seemed clear.


The Court’s decision in this case should be issued next month. MurthyDotCom will provide an update and additional analysis at that time.


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