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Top U.S. court wrestles with immigration bond hearing dispute

By Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struggled for the second time over how to resolve whether immigrants detained by the U.S. government for more than six months should be able to seek their release while deportation proceedings unfold.

A majority of the justices appeared sympathetic to the idea that immigrants held long-term should be eligible for a hearing that would let them argue for their release. But the court's conservatives seemed skeptical over whether such a hearing should be triggered automatically after six months, as a lower court had ruled.

The court previously heard arguments in the case in November 2016 when it was shorthanded, and failed to issue a ruling. The court now has its full complement of nine justices, with President Donald Trump's appointee Neil Gorsuch restoring a 5-4 conservative majority.

The decision to rehear the case may have been made because the justices were deadlocked 4-4, meaning Gorsuch could supply the deciding vote. He said little during Tuesday's argument to indicate how he would vote.

The long-running class action litigation brought by the American Civil Liberties Union includes some immigrants who were held at the border when seeking illegal entry into the United States and others, including legal permanent residents, who have been convicted of crimes.

The lead plaintiff is Alejandro Rodriguez, a legal immigrant from Mexico who was working as a dental assistant when he was detained for three years without a hearing. Rodriguez was placed in removal proceedings based on prior convictions for drug possession and joyriding. Although he was released eventually, the case brought on his behalf continued.

(The story is refiled to fix day of week in first paragraph, Tuesday instead of Wednesday)

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)