Members of the Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared skeptical of the federal government’s argument that a registered sex offender should be required to notify authorities when moving to another country.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was known as the court’s swing vote before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month, noted that the defendant in the case moved to a country not covered under the Sex Offender Registration and Notifications Act (SORNA). The law requires sex offenders to inform “at least one jurisdiction involved” of any change of address.
“The Philippines is not a jurisdiction under SORNA,” Kennedy said.
The case, Nichols v. United States, focuses on Lester Nichols, a convicted sex offender who moved from Kansas to the Philippines in November 2012, eight months after he was released from prison. A month later, he was arrested and deported back to the U.S. for failing to update his sex offender registry.
Curtis Gannon, assistant to the solicitor general at the Department of Justice, argued on behalf of the government that Nichols was required to notify Kansas of his change of address within three business days of his move because Kansas was “an involved jurisdiction.”
Several of the justices, including Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Chief Justice John Roberts, grappled Tuesday with the language in the statute that defines an involved jurisdiction.
Roberts said the statute is an “awful lot to ask a layperson to parse” in order to avoid the maximum 10-year sentence for violating SORNA.
In trying to understand the statute, Breyer questioned whether Nichols would have had to notify Kansas if he had been living in the Philippines for 15 years and then moved to Thailand
“Why not Kansas?” he asked. “That was a jurisdiction that was involved.”
Gannon said Kansas would only remain involved if the national registry said Nichols still lived in Kansas.
Kagan wondered why the U.S. is even bothering to extradite sex offenders back to the U.S. from other countries if they are only required to say they are leaving the state, not where they are going in the world.
She said it seems like the attitude would be “good luck, good riddance.”
Justice Clarence Thomas, who asked questions for the first time in 10 years during a gun rights case on Monday, remained silent for Tuesday’s arguments.
Local copies of all public published case files for U.S. Supreme court case 15-5238 nichols-v-united-states