Immigration judges sue Trump administration saying government tried to muzzle them

A gavel
A gavel (WDIV)

Immigration judges said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday against the U.S. Department of Justice that they are being muzzled by the Trump administration, marking the latest confrontation between the judges and the federal government.

The judges under previous administrations were allowed to speak in their personal capacities on issues relating to immigration if they they made it clear that they were not speaking on behalf of the Justice Department or the court system, said Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, which represents about 460 federal immigration judges.

But under the Trump administration, they have been prohibited from speaking publicly and fear they will lose their jobs if they do so, she said, adding that this prevents the judges from educating the public about the country's immigration courts.

“To muzzle judge and prevent them being part of this huge national discourse on immigration is frankly un-American and it’s unconstitutional," Tabaddor told The Associated Press in an interview shortly before the lawsuit was filed.

Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the agency under the Justice Department that runs the courts, said in an email that the department does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit seeks to block the agency's policy preventing judges from speaking out publicly on immigration issues or the court system.

While immigration judges wear black robes and preside over non-jury proceedings, they are considered federal attorneys with the Justice Department, a law enforcement agency. They can be removed from their positions by the U.S. Attorney General.

In contrast, federal judges who oversee criminal and civil matters are more autonomous because they are appointed for life and work for the independent judicial system.

The immigration judges’ union has called for the courts to be made independent and free of government influence. In turn, the Department has asked federal labor authorities to put an end to the union.

The new legal battle is the latest dispute between the Justice Department and the union, which sparred when the Trump administration required immigration judges to complete 700 cases annually to meet job performance standards.

The government has said the annual case quota requirement is aimed at accelerating cases through the clogged courts, while judges and attorneys said quotas could cause decisions to be unfairly rushed.

The lawsuit was filed in Alexandria, Virginia by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of the union.

In 2017, the Executive Office for Immigration Review started requiring judges to receive prior approval before allowing them to speak publicly, according to the lawsuit.

The agency went a step farther in January when it prohibited immigration judges from speaking in their personal capacities about immigration law or policy or about the agency's programs or policies, according to the lawsuit.

On other topics, judges must get prior approval from the agency. Judges who violate the policy can face reprimands or be suspended or removed, according to the lawsuit.