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Immigration judges accuse Justice Department of undermining independence

| Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, 7:21 p.m.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses the National Sheriffs’ Association opioid roundtable May 3, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (AFP/Getty Images)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses the National Sheriffs’ Association opioid roundtable May 3, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (AFP/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — The nation’s immigration judges on Wednesday accused the Justice Department and Attorney General Jeff Sessions of undermining a Philadelphia judge’s independence by having cases removed from his court, apparently because the federal officials deemed him too slow in making decisions on deportation orders.

A grievance filed by the National Association of Immigration Judges union asks for the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review to acknowledge in writing that it will not interfere with the “decisional authority” of judges in the assignment or reassignment of cases. Officials with the union said the cases were reassigned seemingly to get an outcome the federal government desired.

“The decisional independence of immigration judges is under siege,” said Los Angeles Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor in her role as president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “If allowed to stand, the agency can simply forum-shop its cases for the outcome it wishes to achieve.”

The grievance stems from the case of a Guatemalan immigrant who had come to the United States as an unaccompanied minor several years ago and had missed several court hearings. Attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security had asked that the judge issue a deportation order in the man’s absence from court.

Judge Steven A. Morley instead suspended the case to ask for briefs to examine whether proper notice had been sent to the man.

The agency then reassigned the case to a supervisory judge who traveled from Virginia to hear the matter and issued a deportation order.

The union says dozens of additional cases also were removed from Morley, and they would like them to be returned to his docket.

A statement from Executive Office for Immigration Review said Wednesday that there is reason to believe Morley “committed potential violations of processes and practices governed by federal law and EOIR policy.”

The statement also said the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge investigates “in any situation where a concern is raised about an immigration judge’s conduct, regardless of whether that concern is raised by a representative, third-party group, or following an internal review” and will address it appropriately, based on the facts.

The union said in a statement late Wednesday that if a party believes a judge erred in their ruling, it should be appealed in court. They called the intervening in the judge’s cases an attempt to “influence the judge’s decisions outside of the proper appeals process.”

Tabaddor said the union sees the reassignment of Morley’s cases as part of a larger problem of influencing how the immigration courts function, “turning immigration judges into an arm of law enforcement.”

The Department of Justice has 60 days to respond to the grievance, which is normally not made public. If the two sides disagree, an independent arbiter will hold a hearing on the grievance and order next steps.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said it had no comment on the grievance.

Tabaddor said Morley was aware he may face retaliation for coming forward and making the grievance public, but said the man was “so enraged” and committed to his oath of office, that he decided it was necessary.

Tabaddor said she was unaware of other immigration judges who have had cases taken mid-stream “as a means of directing a different outcome.” But she said all the judges are currently facing issues with executive orders installing quotas and deadlines to speed up the deportation process that are scheduled to go into effect in October. The union had an arbitration hearing over the proposed quotas on Monday.

The judges’ union said the Justice Department’s action not only undermined Morley’s authority but “also threatens the ability of all immigration judges nationwide to fairly apply the immigration laws of the United States consistent with due process rights of parties.”

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