By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday questioned whether a legal immigrant from the Dominican Republic who pleaded guilty in New York to attempted arson in 1999 has grounds to appeal his threatened deportation.
Based on the one-hour oral argument, the court appears likely to rule against Brooklyn resident Jorge Luna Torres, who refers to himself as George Luna.
Luna, who came to the United States with his family at age 9 in 1983, was told by U.S. immigration officials in 2006 after he visited the Dominican Republic that he was subject to deportation because of his 1999 conviction for attempted third-degree arson.
He was given a one-day prison sentence for the crime.
The question before the Supreme Court was whether the attempted arson conviction, a felony under New York law, counted as an aggravated felony under federal law. Under U.S. immigration law, any immigrant convicted of an aggravated felony becomes subject to deportation and cannot appeal against it.
Luna's argument was that the state law does not count as an aggravated felony under federal law.
Luna is a carpenter and electrician living in Brooklyn. The attempted arson conviction was the only crime on his record.
During Tuesday's oral argument, justices indicated concerns that a ruling in Luna's favor would mean that other state crimes, including some involving child pornography, also would no longer be classed as aggravated felonies.
Some of the liberal justices appeared troubled by the idea of Luna being deported for a minor offense, but also expressed concerns about the arguments made by Luna's attorney, Matthew Guadagno.
One of the liberals, Justice Elena Kagan, told Guadagno that his interpretation of the law "appears not to make much sense.
Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Guadagno's argument would let his client off the hook but could also apply to "the worst kind of arson" offenses.
Immigrant advocates and criminal defense lawyers filed court papers backing Luna.
The National Immigrant Justice Center said the Obama administration’s broad definition of an aggravated felony would lead to many immigrants convicted of sometimes minor crimes facing deportation. An aggravated felony conviction puts lawful permanent residents "on an express train to permanent and irrevocable exile," the group's brief to the court said.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
The case is Torres v. Lynch, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 14-1096.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)