Disturbing news over the weekend from El Salvador, where authoritarian president Nayib Bukele and the ruling Nuevas Ideas party removed five judges from the country’s supreme court. The judges were immediately replaced with new judges loyal to the regime.
The move drew significant international criticism, including a warning from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the necessity of an independent judiciary in a democracy. On Twitter, Bukule responded, “We are cleaning house … and this doesn’t concern you.”
When autocrats seek to consolidate their power, their first move is often to undermine or replace the judiciary. Just as the citizens of Venezuela or Poland.
The Alien Terrorist Removal Court (ATRC) is a special federal court, created by Congress in 1996 to review applications by the government for the removal of non-citizens who are suspected of being terrorists. It is populated by five federal district judges, who hold their position on that court in addition to their regular appointments.
Never heard of it? That’s not surprising, since the court has never met in its 23 years of existence. And that’s because the government itself has never once applied to the court to remove a resident alien suspected of terrorism. The judges on the court don’t even know where they would meet if an application was filed, since no specific courthouse has been designated for their deliberations.
Why has the court never been called into order? For one thing, its powers and jurisdiction are arguably unconstitutional:
“I honestly don’t know why it has not decided any cases, but there has been speculation that concerns about its constitutionality may have played a part,” said Robert F. Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia who is familiar with the court.
Turner, a national security expert, said when the government is dealing with permanent resident aliens, legitimate constitutional issues have been raised. He said he believes constitutional complaints concern secret evidence, like sensitive intelligence sources and methods that identified the individual as a terrorist, versus the Sixth Amendment’s right to see evidence and confront witnesses.
The Bristol Herald Courier has a terrific piece explaining the origins, administration, and constitutional challenges facing of one of the least-known courts in the country. Well worth the read!
Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien, convicted by a federal jury of mortgage fraud and facing a sentencing hearing in October, has refused to step down from the bench and continues to collect her nearly $200,000 yearly salary. Now the state’s Judicial Inquiry Board has asked the Illinois Courts Commission to suspend her pay pending a full hearing on removal from office.
In a fascinating bit of chutzpah, O’Brien recently filed paperwork to seek retention in the upcoming election. That seems unlikely, but O’Brien is making a strong push for inclusion in the (already spacious) Cook County Judges Hall of Shame.
Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center has a very interesting blog post on the history of state judicial impeachment. It’s worth a read.
In a sad and bizarre story, the Illinois Courts Commission ordered Chicago judge Valarie Turner to retire on Friday, after an investigation found that Turner had given her judicial robe to her clerk and allowed the clerk to preside over several traffic court cases in August 2016.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times:
Circuit Judge Valarie E. Turner has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is “mentally unable to perform her duties,” according to a complaint filed Thursday by the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board.
Turner allowed law clerk Rhonda Crawford to take her seat behind the bench and rule on several traffic cases last August after introducing her to a prosecutor as “Judge Crawford,” the board contends.
“We’re going to switch judges,” Turner allegedly said during an afternoon court call, before standing up and giving her judicial robe to Crawford.
It appears that Turner’s current mental condition made her forced retirement a fairly straightforward decision for the Board. But it’s entirely unclear why Crawford would play along with this charade, and she has lost her law license as a result.