Vance v. Terrazas

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444 U.S. 252 (1980)

The Supreme Court held that the U.S. government must prove intent to surrender U.S. citizenship and not just the voluntary commission of a expatriating act and that the appropriate standard of proof for analyzing the citizen’s conduct would be proof by a preponderance of the evidence. The Court also held that it is permissible for the government to have a rebuttable presumption that the expatriating act was committed voluntarily. (Read the opinion here.)

Laurence Terrazas, the individual whose citizenship was at issue, was born in the United States (gaining him citizenship under the principle of jus soli of the Fourteenth Amendment) to a Mexican father (gaining Mexican citizenship under Mexican law under the principle of jus sanguinis). While attending a Mexican University, Terrazas applied for a certificate of Mexican nationality. In this application he was required to sign a statement renouncing his U.S. citizenship, which he did. During a later interview with a U.S. consular officer, Terrazas gave conflicting answers to whether he intended to give up his U.S. citizenship when he applied for Mexican nationality. The State Department eventually concluded that Terrazas had lost his U.S. citizenship. Terrazas appealed, first through the State Department’s Board of Appellate Review and then through the federal court system. The district court denied relief and the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

In the 5-4 majority opinion written by Justice White, the court established that a U.S. citizen cannot be expatriated, i.e. stripped of U.S. citizenship, without his or her assent. This means that not only must the individual voluntarily commit the act specified in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, but also that in performing the act, the individual intended to give up his or her citizenship. The court originally established the voluntariness requirement in Afroyim v. Rusk. Afroyim was only half the puzzle, however, and led to much confusion about the requirements for expatriation. The Court in Terrazas reaffirmed the Afroyim voluntariness requirement and added the requirement of intent, thus giving the courts more guidance on when an individual could be deemed to have been expatriated.

The Court then turned to the question of the standard of proof required in expatriation cases. The Court held that Congress could establish the standard of proof at a preponderance of the evidence standard. This was an important development because although the government did have the burden, that burden was now a “more likely than not standard”.

The final comment on the evidentiary standard in expatriation cases came when the Court stated that it was permissible for the government to presume the expatriating act was committed voluntarily and that the burden then shifted to the individual to prove otherwise (i.e. duress, etc.), and that if the individual succeeded, there would be no expatriation, but if he failed, then the question still remained whether all the evidence the government had satisfied its burden of proof that the expatriating act was performed with the necessary intent to relinquish citizenship. The Supreme Court did not rule on whether Terrazas had lost his U.S. citizenship; it remanded to the lower court to make that determination with the standard it had established.

Four justices disagreed with the majority and filed three separate dissenting opinions. Justice Marshall disagreed with the preponderance of the evidence standard for proof of intent to give up citizenship. Likewise, Justice Stevens argued that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required a clear and convincing standard of proof. Justices Brennan and Stewart argued that since Terrazas was essentially born both a U.S. and Mexican citizen and the action of becoming a Mexican national didn’t add anything to the foreign citizenship and the fact that Congress had specified renouncing U.S. citizenship to a U.S. consular officer as a way to expatriation, that his actions could not be seen as expatriating.

Authored by: Chase Woodley, Cornell Law School