It’s a principle that has been a hallmark of our legal culture: The president shouldn’t be able to tell judges what to do.
I served as a U.S. immigration judge in Los Angeles for 17 years, presiding over cases brought against foreign-born noncitizens who Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers believed were in this country illegally and should thus be removed. My responsibility included hearing both ICE’s claims and the claims from respondents for relief from removal, which sometimes included asylum from persecution and torture.
As a judge, I swore to follow the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that “no person” (not “no citizen”) is deprived of due process of law. Accordingly, I was obliged to conduct hearings that guaranteed respondents a full and reasonable opportunity on all issues raised against them.
My decisions and the manner in which I conducted hearings were subject to review before the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals and U.S. courts of appeals. At no time was my judicial behavior subject to evaluation based on how quickly I completed hearings and decided cases. Although my colleagues on the bench and I valued efficiency, the most critical considerations were fairness, thoroughness and adherence to the Fifth Amendment. If our nativist president and his lapdog of an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have their way, those most critical considerations will become a relic of justice.
Under the Trump-Sessions plan, each immigration judge, regardless of the nature and scope of proceedings assigned to him or her, will be required to complete 700 cases in a year to qualify for a “satisfactory” performance rating. It follows that only judges who complete more, perhaps many more, than 700 cases per year will qualify for a higher performance rating and, with it, a possible raise in pay.
Essentially, the administration’s plan is to bribe judges to hear and complete more cases regardless of their substance and complexity, with the corollary that judges who defy the quota imposed on them will be regarded as substandard and subject to penalties. The plan should be seen for what it is: an attempt to undermine judicial independence and compel immigration judges to look over their shoulders to make sure that the administration is smiling at them.
This is a genuine threat to the independence of the immigration bench. While Article III of the Constitution guarantees the complete independence of the federal district courts and courts of appeal, immigration judges are part of the executive branch. Notwithstanding the right of immigration judges to hear and decide cases as they believe they should under immigration law, they are unprotected from financial extortion and not-so-veiled political intimidation under the U.S. Administrative Procedure Act or any regulations.
Moreover, federal laws do not guarantee respondents in removal hearings a right to counsel, and a majority of those in such hearings are compelled to represent themselves before immigration judges, regardless of the complexity of their cases. Those who lack representation in removal hearings typically cannot afford it, and the funds to help legal aid organizations fill in for private attorneys are nowhere to be found.
Hearings in which respondents proceed pro se, or unrepresented, are often the most challenging and time-consuming for immigration judges, who must take care to assure that the procedural rights of those facing possible removal are protected and to guarantee that inarticulate relief claims are fully considered.
The Trump administration’s intention is clear: to intimidate supposedly independent judges to expedite cases, even if it undermines fairness — as will certainly be the case for pro se respondents. Every immigration judge knows that in general, it takes longer to consider and rule in favor of relief for a respondent than it does to agree with ICE and order deportation. The administration wants to use quotas to make immigration judges more an arm of ICE than independent adjudicators.
In my many years on the immigration bench, I learned that repressive nations had one thing in common: a lack of an independent judiciary. Due process requires judges free of political influence. Assembly-line justice is no justice at all.
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