Case of the Day: Garcia v. Kerry

The case of the day is Garcia v. Kerry (5th Cir. 2014). Ernesto Garcia applied to the State Department for a passport. He included with his application a Texas birth certificate purporting to show that he was born in Laredo, Texas. The State Department requested additional information, because, it said, The person who certified the brith, Emma Lopez, was “suspected of submitting false birth records.” (In fact, she pleaded guilty to falsifying a birth record a few years after Garcia’s birth). Garcia alleged that he never received the Department’s request for additional information. He sued for a declaratory judgment of citizenship by birth. The Department then denied his application, citing a Mexican birth certificate purporting to show that Garcia was born in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico.

The case was tried to the court. At the trial, Garcia offered his own testimony. He offered the testimony of his mother, a Mexican national, who said that she had traveled to Laredo on a shopping trip with a friend when nine months pregnant and had suddenly gone into labor. Her friend, who had used Lopez as a birth attendant before, took her to Lopez’s home, where she gave birth. Garcia also offered the testimony of his father, who said that the Mexican birth certificate was a forgery and that he had illegally procured it to allow him to transfer title of real property in Mexico to Garcia. Garcia offered a Mexican default judgment that had cancelled the Mexican birth certificate. An expert witness, Guillermo Alarcon, testified that Mexican birth certificates were “commonly procured in the 1970s by Mexican parents for their children born abroad, due to certain property ownership restrictions placed on dual citizens at the time.” Last, Garcia offered a certified copy of a determination by the Texas Bureau of Vital Statistics, which determined that Garcia had proved by a preponderance of the evidence that he was born in Texas notwithstanding the Mexican birth certificate and that he was therefore entitled to receive a certified copy of his birth certificate. (I’m going to refer to the Bureau as the “state court” or the “Texas court,” since no one in the case seems to have made an issue of the fact that the determination was administrative rather than judicial).

The judge found that Garcia had failed to carry his burden of proof and entered judgment for the government. On appeal, there were several arguments that the court easily brushed aside. The judge did not err by refusing to recognize the Mexican default judgment, because it was a default judgment that neither the State Department nor anyone else had had the opportunity to litigate. The judge did not err by refusing to credit the testimony of Alarcon, the expert, since the weight to be given to an expert witness’s testimony is solely for the finder of fact. And the judge did not err by questioning the credibility of Garcia’s parents’ testimony.

The two interesting questions, in my view, were, first, whether the Full Faith and Credit Clause required the judge to recognize the Texas determination that Garcia had proved his birth in Texas, and, second, whether the judge erred in relying on Lopez’s criminal conviction in discounting her certification. I am only going to address the first, as the second raises only ordinary issues of the law of evidence.

To set the stage: under the Constitution, “Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.” This clause doesn’t apply when the question is the effect a federal court must give a state court proceeding. However, by statute (28 U.S.C. § 1738):

The records and judicial proceedings of any court of any such State, Territory or Possession … shall have the same full faith and credit in every court within the United States and its Territories and Possessions as they have by law or usage in the courts of such State, Territory or Possession from which they are taken.

The statute reaches further than the Constitution and requires federal courts to give full faith and credit to state-court decisions. But according to the Fifth Circuit, the statute didn’t apply, because Congress had plenary power over immigration matters, and the question of Garcia’s nationality was a question of federal law that could not be controlled by the decision of a state court.

Really? The precedent the court cited, Bustamante-Barrera v. Gonzales, stands for the proposition that a federal court need not give binding effect to a state court’s nunc pro tunc modification of a divorce decree that was intended to ensure that the divorced couple’s child would be entitled to claim derivative citizenship. Fair enough. But is this case really like that case? There, the state court decision in question was not a finding of fact, but rather a conclusion of law about which parent should have legal custody of the child; and the decision was modified retroactively, for the express purpose of changing the outcome of the question of the child’s citizenship. These factors aren’t present here. Here, the state court made a finding of fact, which the federal court proceeded to ignore. Consider an analogy: suppose the issue was whether a marriage between a US national and an alien was a bona fide marriage for purposes of US immigration law. It seems to me sensible that a federal court cannot be bound by a state court decision as to the bona fides of the spouses, but it seems less clear that if a state court found that the marriage ceremony actually took place, the federal court should be free to disregard that finding of fact.

Yes, immigration law is federal law, but if a state court finds a fact that happens to have a bearing on the outcome of a federal immigration law proceeding, it’s not clear to me that the full faith and credit statute shouldn’t apply. At least it’s fair to say the Fifth Circuit hasn’t made a very convincing argument for its position.

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