On federal laws and state courthouses

By now,  many readers may be familiar with the growing tensions between states and the federal government over the Trump Administration policy of arresting illegal immigrants outside (and inside) state courthouses. The issue has been brewing for some time, and came to a head in Massachusetts this week when a state court judge and court officer were themselves arrested by federal authorities for helping Jose Medina-Perez, an illegal immigrant in their courtroom on drug charges, evade imminent arrest by an ICE agent by spiriting him out the back door of the courthouse.

Yesterday, in what they maintain is merely a coincidence of timing, two Massachusetts District Attorneys filed a lawsuit against the federal government, seeking to enjoin ICE from making any further arrests in state courthouses.

My former law school classmate Ted Folkman has an excellent rundown of the events and a sensible take on it at Letters Blogatory.  He writes:

My best understanding of the law is that the immigration agent had the right to seek to detain Medina-Perez in the courtroom and that the judge probably shouldn’t have put obstacles (or perhaps “obstructions”) in his way, though I do not want to offer an opinion about whether the judge’s conduct satisfies the elements of the criminal statutes without studying them. Again, we want to think back to another era and the contexts in which states sought to thwart federal law enforcement, and not make a legal rule based just on the sympathies of the moment. But that said, I also think it’s a terrible idea to send immigration agents to courthouses in the first place to arrest people, because it discourages people from attending court and is contrary to efforts to increase access to justice. And I find it hard to see why the federal government thinks the answer is to charge the judge criminally rather than for the Massachusetts court to exercise self-governance.

Two points here deserve elaboration. First, the federal policy is a terrible thing for the operation of state courts and their users. It represents a clear intrusion by a separate sovereign that threatens to disrupt state court proceedings. More importantly, the fear of arrest by ICE agents is sure to dissuade people from coming to court when it is necessary that they do so. The administration of justice will suffer as victims and key witnesses don’t show up for hearings and trials. Claims of domestic violence, child custody, landlord-tenant relations, personal injuries, and a variety of other issues either will not be brought at all, or will lead to default judgments when the defendants fail to appear. If the American tradition of due process means anything, it is that even those who are not citizens — even those who are not here legally — deserve a fair day in court.

At the same time, state courts and state judges are simply not free to ignore federal law and policy with which they disagree. American history is rife with examples of states unacceptably undermining federal law through the operation of their own court systems. Again, if due process means anything, it is that the law must be fairly applied in every venue, regardless of (as Ted puts it) “the sympathies of the moment.” And the charges against the Massachusetts judge, if proven, are quite damning: she allegedly closed her courtroom to the ICE agent, turned off the electronic recording system, and snuck a federal fugitive out the back door of the courthouse. Regardless of how you come down on the morality of her action, her alleged behavior was remarkably unjudicial.

Put differently — we have courts of law, not courts of justice. There are established procedures in place to stop harmful conduct. The lawsuit discussed above is one such procedure; taking the law into your own hands while wearing the robe is not. Whether or not one sympathizes with the intent of the state judge here, her alleged activities have surely damaged the integrity of the state judiciary.

 

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