S.D. Prisoner Can Try to Renounce Citizenship From Behind Bars

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on August 13, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It was like the worst DMV visit ever. Except that Aaron Schnitzler wasn't trying to renew his drivers license; he was trying to renounce his U.S. citizenship. And instead of the DMV, he was going to the U.S. State Department. And instead of being a driver on the open road, he was a state prisoner in South Dakota.

Schnitzler wanted to renounce his U.S. citizenship "[f]or reasons we do not understand," the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals explains. OK, fine. So he wrote to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but they replied that he had to talk to the State Department. Then he wrote to the State Department. But they said that, in order to renounce his citizenship, he had to appear before a diplomat or consular official at a U.S. embassy. He tried the Department of Justice. No dice. He then filed a lawsuit against all three of those departments, telling them he didn't want to be a U.S. citizen anymore.

Insert Kafka Reference Here

Even after all this, the government's response in a December 2011 letter was: sorry, buddy, you're in prison, and you gotta appear at a consulate. Curiously, though, even though the government made a big deal about this letter in the lawsuit, it turned out that not only hadn't Schnitzler ever received the letter, but the government never mailed it.

The government also insisted that Schnitzler's claim was moot because his relief had been granted. The government had acted on his request, albeit by telling him they couldn't act on his request. The D.C. Circuit Court found this peculiar, because Schnitzler's requested relief was never an order compelling the government to act; rather, he wanted to not be a citizen anymore. The government insisted that it needed to conduct an in-person interview to determine whether Schnitzler's request would be "contrary to the interests of national defense." (Then again, the government also "offered a blizzard of constantly changing explanations for why it could not process his request," the court noted.)

Is There a Constitutional Right to Renounce?

The D.C. Circuit, like the district court, construed the claim as challenging the constitutionality of the statute requiring Schnitzler to be in a foreign country and to have an in-person interview before he could renounce his citizenship. The government tried also to claim that Schnitzler lacked standing because there was no causal connection between the injury and the complained-of conduct; the real injury, it asserted, was Schnitzler's objection to the in-person interview policy, not the statute as applied to him.

The D.C. Circuit couldn't redress that objection because finding the statute unconstitutional wouldn't affect the policy. "This argument is a bit rich," the court said, as Schnitzler's complaint didn't challenge the interview policy because he didn't know about the policy until after he filed the lawsuit. "The government cannot now seek to bar standing on the basis of a policy that Schnitzler, a pro se litigant, could not have known existed."

The D.C. Circuit reversed the district court's decision and remanded. Pro se litigants generally don't know how to ask for what they want, and whenever the government opposes their requests, it does so by pointing out that they didn't use the same specific legal language you'd expect from a lawyer. Fortunately, pro se filings are to be liberally construed, and despite the government's obstinacy, Mr. Schnitzler will at least have his day in court.

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