Closure of Office for Access to Justice

Photo Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times as reported on 2/1/18.

Photo Credit: Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times as reported on 2/1/18.

The ability of the poor to access civil courts suffered a setback with the effective closure of the federal Office for Access to Justice, critics of the move say.

“The Justice Department has effectively shuttered an Obama-era office dedicated to making legal aid accessible to all citizens, according to two people familiar with the situation,” the New York Times reported.

The Office for Access to Justice began in 2010 under former Attorney General Eric Holder. “Its offices now sit dark on the third floor of the Justice Department building,” the New York Times reported. “The staff of a dozen or so has dwindled and left the department over the past few months, the people said. Maha Jweied, the acting director of the department, left this month to start a consulting business, according to her LinkedIn profile.”

On Feb. 1, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law condemned the move.

“Once again, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is turning his back on the most vulnerable Americans and abdicating his responsibility as our nation’s chief law enforcement officer,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “In shuttering the doors of the Justice Department’s Access to Justice Office, Attorney General Sessions is making crystal clear that his Justice Department has no interest in establishing justice for the poor.”

Sara Corcoran, Founding Publisher of the California Courts Monitor

Sara Corcoran, Founding Publisher of the California Courts Monitor

Courts Monitor Publisher and national correspondent, Sara Corcoran, provides insight on what we can expect in 2018 around the controversial asbestos litigation arena. Here’s an excerpt from her recent Huffington Post article, 2018: Trump-era Justice Asked to Turn The Tables in Asbestos Litigation:

“As 2018 gains full speed, it’s time for my annual look at trends in the nation’s longest-running personal injury litigation – asbestos. You may have peripheral awareness of it due to those “if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma” ads, but its reach is beyond those sound bites playing on loop.
Actually, asbestos lawsuits are the nation’s longest-running personal injury litigation and have driven nearly 100 companies into a special form of banktruptcy, where trust funds are set up to pay future liabilities. Those funds have become controversial and, in 2017, more than a dozen state attorneys general launched an investigation into whether asbestos trusts were skipping required payments to Medicaid or other agencies providing health care to asbestos victims. (When victims receive compensation for asbestos injuries, some of the money may be owed to repay agencies that provided health care, like Medicaid and veteran’s hospitals.)

Likely even more ominous for the plaintiff’s bar in 2018, the state AGs are asking President Trump’s Justice Department to join their investigations of the repayment issue. The letter making that ask was even noted during a U.S. Senate committee hearing.”

Read more: https://www. trump-era-justice-asked-to- turn-the-tables-in_us_ 5a4f819be4b0cd114bdb323b]

Proposed Immigration Court Reform Could Be ‘Death Knell’

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Executive Office for Immigration Review in Falls Church, Va. Photo credit: Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP as reported by The Washington Post, 10/12/17.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the Executive Office for Immigration Review in Falls Church, Va. Photo credit: Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP as reported by The Washington Post,

Judicial independence would suffer under a plan by the Trump administration to streamline immigration hearings, according to the editorial staff at The Washington Post.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking on Nov. 17 to the Federalist Society national lawyers convention, said the Justice Department was focused on “restoring the rule of law,” particularly in the arena of immigration law enforcement.

But in an Oct. 22 editorial, “Sessions’ plan for immigration courts would undermine their integrity,” The Post warned that a proposed quota system for immigration judges could undermine judicial independence and actually slow down adjudications.

According to reporting by The Post, government documents show that the Justice Department “intends to implement numeric performance standards to evaluate Judge performance.” Such a metric would probably involve assessing judges based on how many cases they complete or how quickly they decide them — a plan that the National Association of Immigration Judges has called a “death knell for judicial independence.…”

The Post editorialized, “As part of Mr. Sessions’s push for an overhaul of the immigration system, the department also plans to begin evaluating immigration judges on the basis of how many cases they resolve. This proposal would do little to fix the United States’ backlogged immigration courts and much to undermine their integrity.”

Boston Globe Deep-Dives Into Immigration Court Delays

Photo Credit: Boston Globe Report, Pat Greenhouse/Staff / File 2015

Photo Credit: Boston Globe Report, Pat Greenhouse/Staff / File 2015

Citing government studies, The Boston Glove is reporting that the immigration court “logjam” has more than doubled over the past decade, to include about a half-million cases including 11,271 cases in Boston,
“As a result, some respondents’ cases may take years to resolve,” government auditors said in the June 1 report on the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration court system.
The Globe story focuses on a woman, her husband, and their two children who “… fled war-torn Syria in 2013, moving first to Lebanon before arriving legally in Massachusetts in March 2014. They applied for asylum, were granted temporary permission to stay, and were given work permits. So far, however, they have no idea how long they’ll be allowed to remain in the United States. Or even if they will.”
The reporting cites several causes for the backlog, including too few judges and the 2014 jump in people seeing refuge here. Immigration courts are considered “civil,” rather than criminal and thus do not have to provide lawyers and other protections. The courts are not part of the federal courts system but are a function of the Justice Department.
Read the Globe story here: At immigration courts, a growing backlog – The Boston Globe

SF-Based Immigration Courts Getting Testy

Official seal of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which operates the U.S. immigration courts.

Official seal of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which operates the U.S. immigration courts.

The federal immigration courts, already over-booked with a half-million pending cases and the focus of President Trump’s crackdown strategies, are getting a bit testy out San Francisco way. A reporter with the East Bay Express, a small but scrappy newspaper, wrote about being asked to leave a proceeding.

The story paints an alarming picture of federal agents lacking transparency. While not a direct part of the story, it also illustrates that the “judges” actually work for the Justice Department and are not regular federal judges.

Read the report here:

I Was Kicked Out of Federal Immigration Court — Because I’m a Journalist | East Bay Express

Former NY Prosecutor Outlines ‘The Real Crisis’ For Immigration

Quotas for depriving people of their liberty (KATE BRUMBACK/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Quotas for depriving people of their liberty (KATE BRUMBACK/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Over the last five years, the budget for immigration courts grew by 74% — but the budget for immigration enforcement agencies grew by over 400%. The result is gridlock that makes those old criminal court dockets look like models of efficiency.

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, writing in the New York Daily News, outlines just how bad the U.S. immigration court crisis has become, blaming political pressures and adding that “… the result is a backlog that staggers the imagination. Today, when immigrants ask when they need to return to court, many are told in 2023.”

 Morgenthau outlines the oft-cited, but still hard to believe, stats: “According to the most recent data from a think tank at Syracuse University, there are currently pending before our immigration courts over half a million removal cases. That averages about 2,000 cases per judge.”

The writer offers some solutions and begins with judges: “What is to be done? Regardless of how one feels about immigration reform generally, everyone can agree that we need to restore sanity to immigration court. First, immigration judges should be real judges. Right now, they are employees of the Justice Department, and not genuinely independent.”

He also makes a call for a sort of Civil Gideon, the idea that some civil cases (as opposed to criminal cases) should require representation (immigration cases are considered civil actions): “Congress must also ensure that immigrants get proper legal representation when their basic rights are at stake… a study published this month disclosed that in 70% of cases involving adults with children, there was no legal representation for the family.”

And, obviously, increase capacity. It’s a well-considered piece from somebody who knows of what they speak. Read it, and find the writer’s other missives on immigration and other issues, here:

 Robert Morgenthau: America’s real immigration crisis

Colorado City Settles ‘Debtors Prison’ Case

Nicole Beemsterboer/NPR

Nicole Beemsterboer/NPR

You can add Colorado Springs, Colo., to the list of American cities learning that turning “civil” cases like traffic tickets into jail-time cases might be illegal. National Public Radio did a deep-dive into the situation this week, offering the context that “… debtors’ prisons have long been illegal in the United States. But many courts across the country still send people to jail when they can’t pay their court fines. Last year, the Justice Department stepped in to stop the practice in Ferguson, Mo. And now, in a first, a U.S. city will pay out thousands of dollars to people who were wrongly sent to jail.”

The NPR story said that Colorado Springs and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado announced “… a settlement that will end the practice of jailing people too poor to pay their court fines. The city will even give payouts to people who were incorrectly sent to jail. Last year, the ACLU of Colorado discovered nearly 800 cases where people had gone to jail in Colorado Springs when they couldn’t pay their tickets for minor violations. Most of the people were homeless — and they were ticketed for things such as panhandling or sleeping in a park overnight. The settlement calls for people to receive $125 for each day they were in jail. One man featured in the story, illegally jailed after being fined for holding up a sign at roadside, will receive some $11,000.

NPR quoted ACLU attorney Mark Silverstein explaining that “… putting people in jail when they can’t pay their fines — without giving them alternative options such as community service — has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court” and also cited their previous work on the issue: An NPR investigative series in 2014 found the practice is widespread across the country. “The law is supposed to treat us equally,” Silverstein says. “So when people with means can simply pay a fine and move on and then the poor get sentenced to jail, because they’re poor, that’s a two-tiered system of justice that violates the principle of equal protection of the laws.”

That previous NPR investigation, which is truly alarming, noted that “… one of the first instances NPR found of fees charged to criminal defendants was in 1965 when California required payments to reimburse crime victims. By the 1980s, states started billing criminal defendants to reimburse taxpayers. Michigan, in 1984, passed the first law to charge inmates for some of the costs of their incarceration. By 1990, Texas reported that fees from offenders made up more than half the budget of the state’s probation agencies.” California now can charge people for their jail stays, public defender costs and other fees, as can 48 other states.

Read the Colorado Springs story here:

Colorado Springs Will Stop Jailing People Too Poor To Pay Court Fines

Judge Says Toddlers Can Grasp Law, Represent Themselves

A child of migrant workers in Five Points, Calif. Judge Jack Weil says his comments on youths defending themselves in immigration court were "taken out of context." (Photo Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times Report, 3/6.16)

A child of migrant workers in Five Points, Calif. Judge Jack Weil says his comments on youths defending themselves in immigration court were “taken out of context.” (Photo Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times Report, 3/6/16)

A federal immigration judge in Virginia, who helps train other such judges, is making headlines for asserting that even toddlers can defend themselves in court without counsel. The Los Angeles Times is among those quoting from a court transcript that is part of an ACLU case: “I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience,” Judge Jack Weil said. ‘They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.'”

The LAT duly notes that “… in immigration court, there is no guarantee of counsel for adults or children. Advocates for immigrants have long argued that a person’s ability to make informed decisions — and their chances of being allowed to stay in the U.S. — are enhanced if an attorney represents them.”

The story also offers this context: “A total of 20,455 unaccompanied youths were caught at the border from October through the end of January, more than double the number during the same period the previous year, which also saw an increase over the year before that, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Youths started streaming in large numbers across the border illegally during the summer of 2014.”

Read the fallout here:

Houston Press Outlines How  Broken Immigration Courts Really Are

Illustration by Brian Stauffer used in a report by The Houston Press, "Immigration Backlog Bounces Thousands of Cases to Late 2019," 2/10/16

Illustration by Brian Stauffer used in a report by The Houston Press, “Immigration Backlog Bounces Thousands of Cases to Late 2019,” 2/10/16

The Houston Press newspaper starts with immigration attorney John Nechman explaining how busy he used to be before “all of his removal cases scheduled to be heard in Houston’s downtown immigration court were reset to the same ten-day span in November, 2019.” And he says “it’s like that for every immigration attorney in town.” Obviously, the report points out, there’s no way all the cases actually scheduled for November, 2019 can be heard – it seems like a good holding date that’s still in this decade.
There are thousands of cases in Houston and also San Antonio and speculation is that they will actually get bumped back into the next decade. Nechman explains the irony: “good” cases, likely to be allowed to remain in the U.S. get the shaft because they remain in legal limbo for years and years; meanwhile, “bad” cases likely to get sent out of the country get years and years to become part of the culture and remain in the U.S.  Houston has the most pending cases in Texas, and is nationally third behind Los Angeles and New York City.
If you’re among those who feel like the immigration court, which is actually an administrative function of the Justice Department and not a federal court at all, has become dysfunctional with its 450,000-case backlog, then this story confirms your worst fears.

Immigration Court Backlog Nearly A Half-Million Cases

The latest update from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, the group most-cited for keeping track of the immigration courts backlog, sets the number of pending cases at a new all-time high of 445,000, with “routine” hearings being delayed for up to four years.
The Los Angels Times is among those taking notice, saying that the rising caseload “… is a nearly 30% increase since Oct. 1, 2013, the start of the last fiscal year” and “… immigration courts have been overwhelmed since the influx last fiscal year of more than 68,500 unaccompanied children and about as many family units crossing the southern border, most from Central America.”
They also noted a changing trend, because “… most backlogged cases involved Mexican immigrants, their backlog has increased only about 4% since the start of last fiscal year, while the backlog has skyrocketed for Central Americans — up 63% for Guatemalans, 92% for Salvadorans and 143% for Hondurans.”
Federal data indicates that California, Texas, and New York led the nation with the largest immigration backlogs, followed by Florida and New Jersey.
The nation’s “immigration courts” are actually a division of the Justice Department, not really federal courts at all. The system report that it has 233 judges in 58 courts nationwide and officials say 17 more are expected to start by month’s end with 68 more are in the process of being hired. But Judge Dana Leigh Marks, who’s been on the bench for 28 years and is president of the National Assn. of Immigration Judges, told the L.A. Times that some 100 immigration judges were expected to retire this year.