Before the effective dates of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), §212(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 was interpreted to give the Attorney General broad discretion to waive deportation of resident aliens. As relevant here, the large class of aliens depending on §212(c) relief was reduced in 1996 by §401 of AEDPA, which identified a broad set of offenses for which convictions would preclude such relief; and by IIRIRA, which repealed §212(c) and replaced it with a new section excluding from the class anyone "convicted of an aggravated felony," 8 U. S. C. §1229b(a)(3). Respondent St. Cyr, a lawful permanent United States resident, pleaded guilty to a criminal charge that made him deportable. He would have been eligible for a waiver of deportation under the immigration law in effect when he was convicted, but his removal proceedings were commenced after AEDPA's and IIRIRA's effective dates. The Attorney General claims that those Acts withdrew his authority to grant St. Cyr a waiver. The Federal District Court accepted St. Cyr's habeas corpus application and agreed that the new restrictions do not apply to removal proceedings brought against an alien who pleaded guilty to a deportable crime before their enactment. The Second Circuit affirmed.
1. Courts have jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. §2241 to decide the legal issue raised by St. Cyr's habeas petition. Pp. 7-24.
(a) To prevail on its claim that AEDPA and IIRIRA stripped federal courts of jurisdiction to decide a pure question of law, as in this case, petitioner Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) must overcome both the strong presumption in favor of judicial review of administrative action and the longstanding rule requiring a clear and unambiguous statement of congressional intent to repeal habeas jurisdiction. Here, that plain statement rule draws additional reinforcement from other canons of statutory construction: First, when a statutory interpretation invokes the outer limits of Congress' power, there must be a clear indication that Congress intended that result; and second, if an otherwise acceptable construction would raise serious constitutional problems and an alternative interpretation is fairly possible, the statute must be construed to avoid such problems. Pp. 7-9.
(b) Construing the amendments at issue to preclude court review of a pure question of law would give rise to substantial constitutional questions. The Constitution's Suspension Clause, which protects the privilege of the habeas corpus writ, unquestionably requires some judicial intervention in deportation cases. Heikkila v. Barber, 345 U. S. 229, 235. Even assuming that the Clause protects only the writ as it existed in 1789, substantial evidence supports St. Cyr's claim that pure questions of law could have been answered in 1789 by a common-law judge with power to issue the writ. Thus, a serious Suspension Clause issue would arise if the 1996 statutes have withdrawn that power from federal judges and provided no adequate substitute. The need to resolve such a serious and difficult constitutional question and the desirability of avoiding that necessity reinforce the reasons for requiring a clear and unambiguous statement of constitutional intent. Pp. 9-14.
(c) To conclude that the writ is no longer available in this context would also represent a marked departure from historical immigration law practice. The writ has always been available to review the legality of executive detention, see e.g., Felker v. Turpin,
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Stevens
On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Second Circuit
Both the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), enacted on April 24, 1996, 110 Stat. 1214, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), enacted on September 30, 1996, 110 Stat. 3009-546, contain comprehensive amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 66 Stat. 163, as amended, 8 U. S. C. §1101 et seq. This case raises two important questions about the impact of those amendments. The first question is a procedural one, concerning the effect of those amendments on the availability of habeas corpus jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. §2241. The second question is a substantive one, concerning the impact of the amendments on conduct that occurred before their enactment and on the availability of discretionary relief from deportation.
Respondent, Enrico St. Cyr, is a citizen of Haiti who was admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident in 1986. Ten years later, on March 8, 1996, he pled guilty in a state court to a charge of selling a controlled substance in violation of Connecticut law. That conviction made him deportable. Under pre-AEDPA law applicable at the time of his conviction, St. Cyr would have been eligible for a waiver of deportation at the discretion of the Attorney General. However, removal proceedings against him were not commenced until April 10, 1997, after both AEDPA and IIRIRA became effective, and, as the Attorney General interprets those statutes, he no longer has discretion to grant such a waiver.
In his habeas corpus petition, respondent has alleged that the restrictions on discretionary relief from deportation contained in the 1996 statutes do not apply to removal proceedings brought against an alien who pled guilty to a deportable crime before their enactment. The District Court accepted jurisdiction of his application and agreed with his submission. In accord with the decisions of four other Circuits, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed.*fn1 229 F. 3d 406 (2000). The importance of both questions warranted our grant of certiorari. 531 U. S. 1107 (2001).
The character of the pre&nbhyph;AEDPA and pre-IIRIRA law that gave the Attorney General discretion to waive deportation in certain cases is relevant to our appraisal of both the substantive and the procedural questions raised by the petition of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). We shall therefore preface our discussion of those questions with an overview of the sources, history, and scope of that law.
Subject to certain exceptions, §3 of the Immigration Act of 1917 excluded from admission to the United States several classes of aliens, including, for example, those who had committed crimes "involving moral turpitude." 39 Stat. 875. The seventh exception provided "[t]hat aliens returning after a temporary absence to an unrelinquished United States domicile of seven consecutive years may be admitted in the discretion of the Secretary of Labor, and under such conditions as he may prescribe." Id., at 878.*fn2 Although that provision applied literally only to exclusion proceedings, and although the deportation provisions of the statute did not contain a similar provision, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) relied on §3 to grant relief in deportation proceedings involving aliens who had departed and returned to this country after the ground for deportation arose. See, e.g., Matter of L, 1 I. & N. Dec. 1, 2 (1940).*fn3
Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which replaced and roughly paralleled §3 of the 1917 Act, excluded from the United States several classes of aliens, including those convicted of offenses involving moral turpitude or the illicit traffic in narcotics. See 66 Stat. 182-187. As with the prior law, this section was subject to a proviso granting the Attorney General broad discretion to admit excludable aliens. See id., at 187. That proviso, codified at 8 U. S. C. §1182(c), stated:
"Aliens lawfully admitted for permanent residence who temporarily proceeded abroad voluntarily and not under an order of deportation, and who are returning to a lawful unrelinquished domicile of seven consecutive years, may be admitted in the discretion of the Attorney General ... ."
Like §3 of the 1917 Act, §212(c) was literally applicable only to exclusion proceedings, but it too has been interpreted by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to authorize any permanent resident alien with "a lawful unrelinquished domicile of seven consecutive years" to apply for a discretionary waiver from deportation. See Matter of Silva, 16 I. & N. Dec. 26, 30 (1976) (adopting position of Francis v. INS, 532 F. 2d 268 (CA2 1976)). If relief is granted, the deportation proceeding is terminated and the alien remains a permanent resident.
The extension of §212(c) relief to the deportation context has had great practical importance, because deportable offenses have historically been defined broadly. For example, under the Immigration and Nationality Act, aliens are deportable upon conviction for two crimes of "moral turpitude" (or for one such crime if it occurred within five years of entry into the country and resulted in a jail term of at least one year). See 8 U. S. C. §§1227(a)(2)(A)(i)-(ii) (1994 ed., Supp. V). In 1988, Congress further specified that an alien is deportable upon conviction for any "aggravated felony," Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, 102 Stat. 4469-4470, §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), which was defined to include numerous offenses without regard to how long ago they were committed.*fn4 Thus, the class of aliens whose continued residence in this country has depended on their eligibility for §212(c) relief is extremely large, and not surprisingly, a substantial percentage of their applications for §212(c) relief have been granted.*fn5 Consequently, in the period between 1989 and 1995 alone, §212(c) relief was granted to over 10,000 aliens.*fn6
Three statutes enacted in recent years have reduced the size of the class of aliens eligible for such discretionary relief. In 1990, Congress amended §212(c) to preclude from discretionary relief anyone convicted of an aggravated felony who had served a term of imprisonment of at least five years. §511, 104 Stat. 5052 (amending 8 U. S. C. § 1182(c)). In 1996, in §440(d) of AEDPA, Congress identified a broad set of offenses for which convictions would preclude such relief. See 110 Stat. 1277 (amending 8 U. S. C. §1182(c)).*fn7 And finally, that same year, Congress passed IIRIRA. That statute, inter alia, repealed §212(c), see §304(b), 110 Stat. 3009-597, and replaced it with a new section that gives the Attorney General the authority to cancel removal for a narrow class of inadmissible or deportable aliens, see id., at 3009-594 (creating 8 U. S. C. §1229b). So narrowed, that class does not include anyone previously "convicted of any aggravated felony." §1229b(a)(3) (1994 ed., Supp. V).
In the Attorney General's opinion, these amendments have entirely withdrawn his §212(c) authority to waive deportation for aliens previously convicted of aggravated felonies. Moreover, as a result of other amendments adopted in AEDPA and IIRIRA, the Attorney General also maintains that there is no judicial forum available to decide whether these statutes did, in fact, deprive him of the power to grant such relief. As we shall explain below, we disagree on both points. In our view, a federal court does have jurisdiction to decide the merits of the legal question, and the District Court and the Court of Appeals decided that question correctly in this case.
The first question we must consider is whether the District Court retains jurisdiction under the general habeas corpus statute, 28 U. S. C. §2241, to entertain St. Cyr's challenge. His application for a writ raises a pure question of law. He does not dispute any of the facts that establish his deportability or the conclusion that he is deportable. Nor does he contend that he would have any right to have an unfavorable exercise of the Attorney General's discretion reviewed in a judicial forum. Rather, he contests the Attorney General's conclusion that, as a matter of statutory interpretation, he is not eligible for discretionary relief.
The District Court held, and the Court of Appeals agreed, that it had jurisdiction to answer that question in a habeas corpus proceeding.*fn8 The INS argues, however, that four sections of the 1996 statutes --specifically, §401(e) of AEDPA and three sections of IIRIRA (8 U. S. C. §§1252(a)(1), 1252(a)(2)(C), and 1252(b)(9) (1994 ed., Supp. V)) --stripped the courts of jurisdiction to decide the question of law presented by respondent's habeas corpus application.
For the INS to prevail it must overcome both the strong presumption in favor of judicial review of administrative action*fn9 and the longstanding rule requiring a clear statement of congressional intent to repeal habeas jurisdiction. See Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall. 85, 102 (1869) ("We are not at liberty to except from [habeas corpus jurisdiction] any cases not plainly excepted by law"); Felker v. Turpin, 518 U. S. 651, 660-661 (1996) (noting that "[n]o provision of Title I mentions our authority to entertain original habeas petitions," and the statute "makes no mention of our authority to hear habeas petitions filed as original matters in this Court").*fn10 Implications from statutory text or legislative history are not sufficient to repeal habeas jurisdiction; instead, Congress must articulate specific and unambiguous statutory directives to effect a repeal. Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall., at 105 ("Repeals by implication are not favored. They are seldom admitted except on the ground of repugnancy; and never, we think, when the former act can stand together with the new act").*fn11
In this case, the plain statement rule draws additional reinforcement from other canons of statutory construction. First, as a general matter, when a particular interpretation of a statute invokes the outer limits of Congress' power, we expect a clear indication that Congress intended that result. See Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. v. Florida Gulf Coast Building & Constr. Trades Council, 485 U. S. 568, 575 (1988). Second, if an otherwise acceptable construction of a statute would raise serious constitutional problems, and where an alternative interpretation of the statute is "fairly possible," see Crowell v. Benson, 285 U. S. 22, 62 (1932), we are obligated to construe the statute to avoid such problems. See Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U. S. 288, 341, 345-348 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring); United States ex rel. Attorney General v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 213 U. S. 366, 408 (1909).*fn12
A construction of the amendments at issue that would entirely preclude review of a pure question of law by any court would give rise to substantial constitutional questions. Article I, §9, cl. 2, of the Constitution provides: "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." Because of that Clause, some "judicial intervention in deportation cases" is unquestionably "required by the Constitution." Heikkila v. Barber, 345 U. S. 229, 235 (1953).
Unlike the provisions of AEDPA that we construed in Felker v. Turpin, 518 U. S. 651 (1996), this case involves an alien subject to a federal removal order rather than a person confined pursuant to a state-court conviction. Accordingly, regardless of whether the protection of the Suspension Clause encompasses all cases covered by the 1867 Amendment extending the protection of the writ to state prisoners, cf. id., at 663-664, or by subsequent legal developments, see LaGuerre v. Reno, 164 F. 3d 1035 (CA7 1998), at the absolute minimum, the Suspension Clause protects the writ "as it existed in 1789."*fn13 Felker, 518 U. S., at 663-664.
At its historical core, the writ of habeas corpus has served as a means of reviewing the legality of executive detention, and it is in that context that its protections have been strongest.*fn14 See, e.g., Swain v. Pressley, 430 U. S. 372, 380, n. 13 (1977); id., at 385-386 (Burger, C. J., concurring) (noting that "the traditional Great Writ was largely a remedy against executive detention"); Brown v. Allen, 344 U. S. 443, 533 (1953) (Jackson, J., concurring in result) ("The historic purpose of the writ has been to relieve detention by executive authorities without judicial trial"). In England prior to 1789, in the Colonies,*fn15 and in this Nation during the formative years of our Government, the writ of habeas corpus was available to nonenemy aliens as well as to citizens.*fn16 It enabled them to challenge executive and private detention in civil cases as well as criminal.*fn17 Moreover, the issuance of the writ was not limited to challenges to the jurisdiction of the custodian, but encompassed detentions based on errors of law, including the erroneous application or interpretation of statutes.*fn18 It was used to command the discharge of seamen who had a statutory exemption from impressment into the British Navy,*fn19 to emancipate slaves,*fn20 and to obtain the freedom of apprentices*fn21 and asylum inmates.*fn22 Most important, for our purposes, those early cases contain no suggestion that habeas relief in cases involving executive detention was only available for constitutional error.*fn23
Notwithstanding the historical use of habeas corpus to remedy unlawful executive action, the INS argues that this case falls outside the traditional scope of the writ at common law. It acknowledges that the writ protected an individual who was held without legal authority, but argues that the writ would not issue where "an official had statutory authorization to detain the individual but ... the official was not properly exercising his discretionary power to determine whether the individual should be released." Brief for Respondent, O. T. 2000, No. 00-1011, p. 33. In this case, the INS points out, there is no dispute that the INS had authority in law to hold St. Cyr, as he is eligible for removal. St. Cyr counters that there is historical evidence of the writ issuing to redress the improper exercise of official discretion. See n. 23, supra; Hafetz, The Untold Story of Non-criminal Habeas Corpus and the 1996 Immigration Acts, 107 Yale L. J. 2509 (1998).
St. Cyr's constitutional position also finds some support in our prior immigration cases. In Heikkila v. Barber, the Court observed that the then-existing statutory immigration scheme "had the effect of precluding judicial intervention in deportation cases except insofar as it was required by the Constitution," 345 U. S., at 234-235 (emphasis added) --and that scheme, as discussed below, did allow for review on habeas of questions of law concerning an alien's eligibility for discretionary relief. Therefore, while the INS' historical arguments are not insubstantial, the ambiguities in the scope of the exercise of the writ at common law identified by St. Cyr, and the suggestions in this Court's prior decisions as to the extent to which habeas review could be limited consistent with the Constitution, convince us that the Suspension Clause questions that would be presented by the INS' reading of the immigration statutes before us are difficult and significant.*fn24
In sum, even assuming that the Suspension Clause protects only the writ as it existed in 1789, there is substantial evidence to support the proposition that pure questions of law like the one raised by the respondent in this case could have been answered in 1789 by a common law judge with power to issue the writ of habeas corpus. It necessarily follows that a serious Suspension Clause issue would be presented if we were to accept the INS's submission that the 1996 statutes have withdrawn that power from federal judges and provided no adequate substitute for its exercise. See Hart, The Power of Congress to Limit the Jurisdiction of Federal Courts: An Exercise in Dialectic, 66 Harv. L. Rev. 1362, 1395-1397 (1953). The necessity of resolving such a serious and difficult constitutional issue -- and the desirability of avoiding that necessity --simply reinforce the reasons for requiring a clear and unambiguous statement of constitutional intent.
Moreover, to conclude that the writ is no longer available in this context would represent a departure from historical practice in immigration law. The writ of habeas corpus has always been available to review the legality of executive detention. See Felker, 518 U. S., at 663; Swain v. Pressley, 430 U. S., at 380, n. 13; id., at 385-386 (Burger, C. J., concurring); Brown v. Allen, 344 U. S., at 533 (Jackson, J., concurring in result). Federal courts have been authorized to issue writs of habeas corpus since the enactment of the Judiciary Act of 1789, and §2241 of the Judicial Code provides that federal judges may grant the writ of habeas corpus on the application of a prisoner held "in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States."*fn25 28 U. S. C. §2241. Before and after the enactment in 1875 of the first statute regulating immigration, 18 Stat. 477, that jurisdiction was regularly invoked on behalf of noncitizens, particularly in the immigration context. See, e.g., In re Kaine, 14 How. 103 (1853); United States v. Jung Ah Lung, 124 U. S. 621, 626-632 (1888).
Until the enactment of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, the sole means by which an alien could test the legality of his or her deportation order was by bringing a habeas corpus action in district court.*fn26 See, e.g., United States v. Jung Ah Lung, 124 U. S. 621 (1888); Heikkila, 345 U. S., at 235; Chin Yow v. United States, 208 U. S. 8 (1908); Ng Fung Ho v. White, 259 U. S. 276, 284 (1922). In such cases, other than the question whether there was some evidence to support the order,*fn27 the courts generally did not review factual determinations made by the Executive. See Ekiu v. United States, 142 U. S. 651, 659 (1892). However, they did review the Executive's legal determinations. See Gegiow v. Uhl, 239 U. S. 3, 9 (1915) ("The statute by enumerating the conditions upon which the allowance to land may be denied, prohibits the denial in other cases. And when the record shows that a commissioner of immigration is exceeding his power, the alien may demand his release upon habeas corpus"); see also Neuman, Jurisdiction and ...