By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A divided U.S. Supreme Court struggled on Wednesday with how to resolve a dispute over whether immigrants detained by the U.S. government for more than six months while deportation proceedings take place should be able to seek their release.
The case takes on additional importance with the expectation that President-elect Donald Trump will ramp up immigration enforcement, placing more people in detention awaiting deportation, when he takes office on Jan. 20, as he pledged during his election campaign.
During a one-hour argument, the court's four liberals appeared to support requiring that immigrants held more than six months be automatically eligible for hearings in which they could argue for their freedom while their deportation cases unfold. Conservative justices were skeptical.
The shorthanded court could be heading toward another 4-4 deadlock, divided along ideological lines.
A 4-4 split would leave in place an October 2015 ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a lower-court injunction requiring a hearing after six months of detention. The justices potentially could issue a narrow decision sending the case back to lower courts without resolving the question of whether hearings are required.
The Obama administration, which asked the justices to decide the case, has said hearings can be permitted in certain instances but opposed a blanket rule requiring them.
The long-running class action litigation brought by the American Civil Liberties Union includes some immigrants who were held at the border when seeking illegal entry into the United States and others, including legal permanent residents, who have been convicted of crimes.
The case also could affect long-term U.S. residents who entered the country illegally.
Liberal justices asserted that hearings should be required in order to meet the U.S. Constitution's promise of due process.
"You can't just lock people up without any finding of dangerousness, without any finding of flight risk, for an indefinite period of time, and not run into due process," said Justice Elena Kagan
"We are in an upended world if we think 14 months or 19 months is a reasonable time to detain a person," added Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Conservatives including Chief Justice John Roberts said the court had been asked to decide only whether the immigration laws in question required the hearings and not whether there was a potential constitutional violation. The case would have to be litigated further in lower courts for that issue to reach the justices, Roberts said.
The lead plaintiff is Alejandro Rodriguez, a legal immigrant from Mexico who was working as a dental assistant when he was detained for three years without a hearing. Rodriguez was placed in removal proceedings based on prior convictions for drug possession and joyriding. Although he was released eventually, the case brought on his behalf continued.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)