13 March 2007

Bad Immigration Judges Yanked From Bench

It is an open secret that our immigration courts are broken. A first partial solution, the removal from judicial duties of some of the bad actors, is now underway.

An immigration judge in New York who has been repeatedly rebuked by federal appeals judges for his hostile questioning of asylum-seekers was relieved of courtroom duties yesterday and reassigned to a desk job . . .

The circuit courts have been overwhelmed with asylum appeals since the Bush administration curtailed an internal immigration appeals process, and have complained of a pattern of biased and incoherent decisions and bullying conduct by immigration judges, who are not part of the independent federal judiciary. . . . 11 of the nation’s roughly 215 immigration judges had been temporarily suspended from courtroom duties since June, “based on concerns about how they were conducting immigration proceedings.” Some have since returned to the bench, he said.

Last month, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Manhattan, took the unusual step of recommending that the Board of Immigration Appeals, a Justice Department internal review panel, scrutinize all Judge [Jeffrey S.] Chase’s decisions pending on appeal. . . .

Judge Chase is not allowed to speak to the news media. But an immigration lawyer close to him, Peter Lobel, said the judge seemed almost relieved to be off the bench yesterday.

“He said, ‘Maybe when I look back at this in five years it may have been for the best,’ ” Mr. Lobel recalled. . . .

But before long, incredulous tirades became his trademark in many Chinese asylum cases, according to court records and interviews with a dozen lawyers. Openly frustrated with a pattern of boilerplate claims that he suspected had been concocted by smugglers, he adopted “an inquisitorial mode,” said Thomas V. Masucci, a lawyer who represented many Chinese asylum-seekers in his court.

The tables turned after appeals reached federal court last year. In scathing decisions, the court rebuked Judge Chase for “pervasive bias and hostility,” “combative and insulting language,” and remarks “implying that any asylum claim based on China’s coercive family planning policies would be presumed incredible.”

Mr. Lobel described the judge as devastated after a stinging Second Circuit decision was published last year in The New York Law Journal. “He said, ‘I learned my lesson, but some of these cases are still in the pipeline,’ ” Mr. Lobel said then.

The recommendation that all such cases be reviewed came in a Feb. 21 ruling in which the Second Circuit overturned Judge Chase’s decision to deny asylum to Aboubacar Ba, a Mauritania native, in 2004, and to find his application for asylum “frivolous.”

Not only did Judge Chase’s decision show “a plethora of errors and omissions,” the court said, but his tone during the hearing was unacceptable.

The panel pointed to a ”disturbing” incident in which the judge appeared to tread on lawyer-client privilege when he asked Mr. Ba if he had lied to his lawyer: “Yes or no?”

“’It is inconceivable,” the panel wrote, that Judge Chase, “as a judge and lawyer, would not know the impropriety of that question.”

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