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Landmark Immigrant-Rights Case Hits Colorado's High Court

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Jose Espino-Paez and Osvaldo Corrales-Castro are challenging what their attorney called in the Colorado Supreme Court Thursday an inconsistency in federal law that unfairly treats immigrants in deferred-judgment cases.

Espino-Paez and Corrales-Castro, both undocumented immigrants, served a deferred judgment — a legal mechanism that allows mostly first-time offenders to serve a probation-like sentence and, often, vacates the charges — after pleading guilty to a possession case in 1996 and to a criminal impersonation case and DUI in 2009, respectively. Because both men served a deferred judgment, their cases were vacated.

But because they are immigrants, and immigrants without citizenship status who are convicted of some crimes aren’t protected from deportation, they could still be sent back to their home countries. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled against Espino-Paez last year in his fight to find a path to citizenship. His lawyer appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

Hans Meyer, one of their attorneys, argued Thursday that the original attorneys in their cases were ineffective and failed to give them the information they needed to make sound decisions in their pleas — mostly that pleading guilty could lead to their deportation.

Espino-Paez and Corrales-Castro are asking the Supreme Court to force prosecutors to reopen their cases so they can retract their guilty pleas with the hope that district attorneys in their respective cases won’t prosecute a second time. If they aren't convicted of the crimes, they can apply for legal status.

The state has a technical problem in siding with Meyer. Because their cases have been vacated, there is no case from which they can withdraw their pleas. Their original pleas had already been withdrawn, and you can’t withdraw a plea more than once, argued a lawyer from the Attorney General’s office on Thursday. Plus, all sorts of issues come up in reopening an old case. The evidence may be stale. There is a risk of double jeopardy.

Some justices raised the concern that Meyer was asking the state to meddle in federal law. The justices questioned Meyer about whether there was any rule to point to that would give the Colorado Supreme Court the right to intervene.

“Justice screams for a remedy here,” said Colorado Supreme Court Justice Richard Gabriel Thursday.

“Do we have to cobble together a casserole to find a remedy?” asked Justice Brian Boatright.

Meyer said that was not his intent, but the justices weren’t satisfied Thursday that Colorado law would allow the state court to find a fix, as immigration is under federal jurisdiction.

Treating immigrants differently than other defendants is unjust, says immigrant-rights activist Julie Gonzales.

"These cases ask the Colorado Supreme Court to ensure that everyone has equal access to justice under the law," she says.

Gonzales says the cases are especially critical in the wake of Donald Trump's election to the presidency, since he campaigned on a promise to deport 11 million immigrants.

"Ensuring that the Constitution protects everyone, regardless of immigration status, will be terribly important, particularly as we begin the Trump era," Gonzales says. "In the aftermath of his election, it was powerful to see dozens of immigrant families sitting in the Supreme Court's chambers demanding full access to justice."

The court will make a decision in both cases in the next ninety days.

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