Debra J. Saunders
I want to start a series of occasional columns about how in modern America, everything is so complicated that we can't get simple things done. When you look at government -- the criminal justice system, the courts, the federal budget -- engines that used to work smoothly now are sputtering. They're all cog, no machine. That's why so many Americans are angry at the system -- it's all check, no balance.

At first blush, the story of Mark Matute, as The Chronicle's Bob Egelko reported Wednesday, seemed to typify all-cog no-machine syndrome. Matute was 4 months old when he legally entered the United States from the Philippines 37 years ago. In March 2005, he pleaded no contest to a burglary charge in San Mateo, Calif. While he was out on probation in 2006, Matute pleaded no contest to possession of a stolen vehicle. That earned Matute a 16-month prison term -- which, thanks to a 1996 federal law, made Matute eligible for deportation.

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Of course, this being America, first there would be appeals, even though Matute had agreed to his punishment and signed a plea agreement that stipulated, "I understand that if I am not a citizen, conviction of the offense for which I have been charged will have the consequences of deportation, exclusion from admission to the United States or denial of naturalization." His appellate attorneys would argue that Matute did not understand what he swore he understood.

An appeal filed by attorney Daniel Mayfield argued that the plea should be vacated dropped because there was no place next to this admonition for the defendant to initial. When a judge asked, "Do you understand that if you are not a citizen of the United States that conviction for this offense will result in your deportation or exclusion from admission to the United States?" Matute answered, "Yes, your honor."

But the judge left out the language on naturalization. "He did it incompletely," explained another Matute attorney, Robert Vallandigham.

"What's the harm in requiring the court to make the defendant focus" on each item, he asked. The harm is, it never ends.

Last month, the First District Court of Appeal denied Matute's appeal. The good news is that the court did not issue a ruling that could lead to state legal forms that ask in five different places, do you really, really, really know what you're doing? Initial here, here and here. Also, parties on both sides expect this ruling to end this case.

Besides, as it turns out, Matute was deported last year. Note to self: Sometimes the machine delivers as promised.

Debra J. Saunders

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