The national association of immigration judges has filed a formal grievance over the Justice Department's removal and replacement of a Philadelphia jurist who had delayed the deportation of a Guatemalan immigrant.
The removal of Judge Steven Morley subverted the judicial process, undermined his independence, and impugned his competence and integrity, all to obtain a particular outcome in the case, according to the judges' union and its labor complaint.
"This is a direct interference with a judge's decisional independence," said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, and a sitting immigration judge in Los Angeles.
The case involved a man named Reynaldo Castro-Tum, who came to the United States four years ago as an unaccompanied 17-year-old. After Morley sought to ensure that Castro-Tum had been properly notified that he was to appear in court, a replacement judge was sent to Philadelphia to take over the case. She ordered Castro-Tum deported without further inquiry.
The Justice Department declined to respond on the record to questions about the grievance.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Tabaddor revealed that the Justice Department had removed roughly 60 additional cases from Morley's calendar. She described the judge, who did not respond to an earlier request for comment, as "enraged" and "disturbed" by his removal but still coming to court and on the job.
Tabaddor described the removal of a sitting judge from an active case as unprecedented, calling it part of "a step-by-step encroachment" into judicial authority by a Justice Department led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Immigration court is a civil system, composed of roughly 60 jurisdictions and 350 judges. In the flow chart of the federal government, these courts come under the Justice Department, not the judiciary. At the top of the department stands the attorney general, who has the power to issue binding decisions on how immigration judges operate.
Those circumstances make the courts vulnerable to political pressure, outside observers say, and judges have come under increased Justice Department regulation since President Trump was elected.
In April, judges were told they each must clear at least 700 cases a year, and have less than 15 percent of their decisions overturned, to receive a satisfactory rating on their job reviews.
That has led immigration attorneys to worry: Will judges feel they must rush through some cases so they can achieve their quota? What if a judge needs to clear 10 cases in three days to meet that 700-case goal? How can those 10 defendants get the same quality of justice?
In June, Sessions reversed a ruling that granted asylum to a Salvadoran woman who said she was physically and emotionally abused by her ex-husband. The attorney general told immigration judges that domestic abuse and gang violence were no longer sufficient grounds.
The labor complaint was filed in keeping with the collective-bargaining agreement between the judges association and the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review. Morley and the association are listed as grievants.
The Justice Department violated the authority of an immigration judge to make an independent decision and to grant a continuance for good cause — along with the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution, the complaint said.
News broke last week that the Justice Department had replaced Morley after he had asked for more legal information in a deportation case, inserting a new jurist who quickly ordered the defendant removed from the country. Fifteen retired judges signed a letter of protest, calling Morley's ouster the latest attack on judicial independence.
Initially, Castro-Tum had been released into the care of a relative in rural Washington, Pa. He subsequently failed to appear for at least two court hearings.
On May 31, seeing that the man had no lawyer, Philadelphia immigration attorney Matthew Archambeault stepped forward as "a friend of the court" to provide representation. He asked for a continuance to try to locate Castro-Tum, the complaint said.
Archambeault said the case was likely headed toward a ruling of deportation, but at the same time it was unclear if Castro-Tum had received the notices telling him to come to court. Knowing that answer was vital to determining whether Castro-Tum could be ordered to be removed in his absence, the complaint said.
On July 19, Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Jack Weil told Morley that the case had been reassigned, because the Philadelphia judge should not have continued the case at the request of a friend of the court, and should have proceeded with an order of removal — as per Sessions' earlier decision restricting judges' use of what is called administrative closure.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review sent Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Deepali Nadkarni to Philadelphia to conduct a single hearing. She ordered the defendant removed without further inquiry.