Courts & Crime

Appeals court allows inmate to try to renounce U.S. citizenship

A prison inmate who wants to renounce his U.S. citizenship will get a chance to make his case, under an appeals court ruling.

Chief Judge Merrick Garland, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, sets up the decision this way:

“For reasons we do not understand, Aaron Schnitzler, a South Dakota state prisoner, wants to renounce his United States citizenship,” Garland wrote. “For reasons the government has failed to explain -- or rather, for a host of ever-changing reasons -- it has made it impossible for him to do so.”

Schnitzler is nearing the end of a 15-year sentence for sexual conduct with a child under the age of 16. Starting in about 2010, he embarked on what Garland termed a “merry-go-round” of entreaties to a variety of federal agencies, in search of his citizenship renunciation. Frustrated, he sued.

Among other arguments, the government said an in-person interview is required to request renunciation. But, since Schnitzler is incarcerated, such an interview was impossible. He’d have to wait until he was released. Not good enough, Schnitzler says.

“’I want to renounce citizenship while in prison right now!’ he said,” Garland recounted.

Represented by Megan Degeneffe and other Georgetown University Law Center students, Schnitzler appealed, and found a sympathetic audience on the three-judge panel.

“It may well seem incongruous that, at a time when many people are trying hard to obtain American citizenship, Schnitzler regards himself as ‘injured’ by his inability to renounce it,” Garland wrote. “Nonetheless, the fact that we, or the government’s attorneys, would not ourselves feel ‘prejudiced’ by being required to remain in citizenship status does not mean that Schnitzler has not suffered an injury in fact.”