Slate's Jurisprudence: Immigrant Hiring and RICO

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case Wednesday about whether prosecutors can use federal racketeering laws to try corporations allegedly hiring people living and working in the United States illegally. Madeleine Brand talks with Slate legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick about whether the case could set a precedent for other immigration cases.

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ALEX CHADWICK, Host:

Whatever you call them, undocumented workers are at the surface of a case now before the Supreme Court. But at the heart of today's arguments is this question; can U.S. companies be treated like mafia racketeers? This case involves a company that allegedly conspired to bring undocumented workers into the country.

The justices will decide whether the company can be sued under the RICO law, normally used against the likes of Tony Soprano of the world.

Dahlia Lithwick is legal analyst for the online magazine, Slate, and for DAY TO DAY. Dahlia, the company is the carpet maker, Mohawk Industries. What's the accusation here?

DAHLIA LITHWICK (Legal Analyst, Slate magazine): Well, the allegation, Alex, is that Mohawk conspired with outside employment agencies to essentially recruit sometimes even on the border of Mexico and then hire illegal labor. And they further--the allegation is they further covered up that conduct by providing false documents to the illegal workers. And the former employees of the company say all of that had the effect of lowering workers' salaries.

CHADWICK: And this group of former Mohawk workers want the RICO law to apply here. Why?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, it's not an accident. RICO brings with it a lot of benefits to the people who prevail under it. You're liable for travel damages under RICO, you can get attorneys' fees paid for under RICO, and if you prevail there's a possibility of future criminal prosecution down the line. So it's a very, very attractive option to try to cast as wide a net as you can, using RICO to do it.

CHADWICK: And I'll bet that Mohawk's lawyers said this morning before the court, absolutely doesn't apply here.

Ms. LITHWICK: He did say that, although it was interesting, Alex. He had a really tough time even getting into the court. A lot of the justices were very bothered that he hadn't raised his primary argument, which is a sort of very technical, textual argument about the construction of the language of the actual statute. He hadn't raised it properly before the court. There--it sounded like some of them didn't even want to hear his arguments as a consequence, but yes, he went beyond that. He claimed, look, RICO contemplated going after the mob and organized crimes and racketeering, not going after companies doing what they do in the normal course of business.

CHADWICK: So how did the Justices react to that interpretation of RICO?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, I think they were somewhat sympathetic to what he said. Certainly some of the justices felt like this was a real stretch, but, as I said, I think that they gave him a harder time than he expected about whether he was even properly before the court in the first place on this major issue of textual interpretation.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Dahlia Lithwick. She writes about the courts for the online magazine, Slate, and covers them regularly here for us on DAY TO DAY.

Dahlia, thank you for being with us again.

Ms. LITHWICK: Always a pleasure.

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