- Case Summary

University / Undergraduate
Modified: 28th Jun 2001
Wordcount: 496 words


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Legal Case Summary

Summary: The case focused on the indefinite detention of deportable aliens under U.S Immigration law.


Two litigants, Zadvydas (a resident alien since childhood) and Ma (a lawful permanent resident), could not be deported back to their countries, Lithuania and Cambodia, respectively because these countries refused to accept them. They remained in United States custody far beyond the statutory 90-day removal period.

Both petitioners filed suits in federal courts, which resulted in differing verdicts. The Fifth Circuit upheld Zadvydas's detention, while the 9th Circuit held that Ma's indefinite detention was unconstitutional.


The core issue pertained to the interpretation of a provision in the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which provides the Attorney General with the power to continue the detention of certain aliens. The question put before the Supreme Court was the constitutionality of indefinite detention periods for immigrations cases.


Zadvydas v. Davis set a critical precedent and clamped down on limitless detention of immigrants who could not be deported, using the principle of constitutional avoidance where a statute is interpreted so as not to infringe the Constitution. Its legal principle has been extended to other cases, including detention of terror suspects. However, the issue of immigrant detention has continued to present legal and ethical challenges.


The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling delivered by Justice Stephen Breyer, held that the statute does not permit indefinite detention. A statute, permitting indefinite detention of an alien, would cause a serious constitutional problem. The Court applied the principle of constitutional avoidance and interpreted the law to contain an implicit 'reasonable time' limitation, the presumptive limit being six months.


  • Zadvydas v. Davis, 533 U.S. 678 (2001)
  • U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. ยง 1231(a)(6)

Journalist Brief

In Zadvydas v. Davis, The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that indefinite detention of immigrants who cannot be deported is unconstitutional. The case revolved around two residents who couldn't be deported because their home countries refused to accept them. After being kept in U.S custody for a longer period than allowed by law, they took their case to court. The Supreme Court ruled that barring exceptional circumstances, a six-month detention is reasonable.


What was the decision in Zadvydas v. Davis?

Answer: The Supreme Court ruled that immigration statutes do not permit indefinite detention and a six-month detention is considered reasonable barring exceptional circumstances.

What is constitutional avoidance?

Answer: Constitutional avoidance is a legal principle where judges interpret laws in a manner that avoids constitutional issues.

How did this case impact immigration law?

Answer: It set a precedent that indefinite detention of deportable immigrants constitutes a violation of the Constitution.

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