WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Justice Department plans to take dozens of cases away from an immigration judge who has delayed deportation orders, in part for perceived criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the union representing immigration judges said Wednesday.
CNN reported Tuesday that the Justice Department replaced Philadelphia Immigration Judge Steven Morley with an assistant chief immigration judge last month to hear a single case on his docket, which resulted in a young undocumented immigrant, Reynaldo Castro-Tum, being ordered deported.
Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Jack Weil told Morley that comments in the Castro-Tum case were perceived as "criticism" of the Board of Immigration Appeals and attorney general's decisions and that they were "unprofessional," according to the grievance filed by the National Association of Immigration Judges. The cases all involve young undocumented immigrants and whether they got adequate notice from the government about hearings at which they failed to appear. Weil also told Morley that he himself should have either ordered Castro-Tum deported or terminated the case altogether.
It's the most public fight yet between the union that represents the nation's roughly 350 immigration judges and Sessions, who has intently focused on the immigration courts under his purview. The immigration judges have long bemoaned their structure under the Justice Department, but have taken particular issue with many of the moves pursued by the Trump administration that they say interfere with their ability to conduct fair and impartial court proceedings.
Unlike federal judges, immigration judges are employees of the Justice Department and the attorney general has the authority to hire them, manage their performance measures and even rule on cases with binding authority over how the judges must decide similar issues.
The judge's union says DOJ broke the collective bargaining agreement by violating Morley's independent decision-making authority.
Morley denied those comments were unprofessional and reiterated he made the proper decisions in the case based on the facts and due process, the grievance said.
"He's being targeted for what is perceived to be criticism of the attorney general when it is in fact just a judge doing his job, raising concerns about due process," Judge Ashley Tabaddor said Wednesday on behalf of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
A spokesman for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which administers the immigration courts, said there were concerns about the judge's "conduct."
"There is reason to believe that the immigration judge in question committed potential violations of processes and practices governed by federal law and EOIR policy," the spokesman said. "In any situation where a concern is raised about an immigration judge's conduct, regardless of whether that concern is raised by a representative, third-party group, or following an internal review, EOIR's OCIJ investigates the issue thoroughly and will address it appropriately as the facts warrant. We look forward to fully vindicating the issues surrounding this matter."
Case closed when undocumented immigrant failed to appear
Morley had presided over Castro-Tum's case since he was apprehended crossing the border illegally as a teenager in 2014. But though Castro-Tum repeatedly failed to appear in court, Morley closed his case because he was not satisfied the government had an accurate address with which they could notify Castro-Tum of his hearings.
Earlier this year, Sessions referred the case to himself on appeal and used it to rule that immigration judges could not close cases administratively any longer. The case was sent back to Morley, who granted a short extension to allow an immigration attorney to try to find Castro-Tum, ultimately unsuccessfully. The judge sent in by the Justice Department late last month ordered the man deported, though his whereabouts are still unknown.
Now dozens more cases related to that hearing are also being reassigned from Morley, he was told, according to the grievance. Those largely concerned other undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as teenagers, who later failed to appear in court.
In all of the cases that he has been told are being reassigned, Morley had closed the cases because the government did not satisfy his concerns about the accuracy of the addresses and information from the Department of Health and Human Services regarding the immigrants' whereabouts were, the grievance said.
"This is a direct interference with a judge's decisional independence," Tabaddor told reporters. "The foundation of due process is notice and an opportunity to be heard. If someone is not properly notified ... then the court cannot proceed to order them deported."
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