PERSONALITY IN THE NEWS : ‘Old-Time Judge’ Stymies White House : Law: C. Clyde Atkins has twice blocked U.S. efforts to repatriate Haitian refugees. Lawyers will try again to make case in his courtroom.


Before the Bush Administration can deal with 7,700 Haitian refugees, it has to deal with C. Clyde Atkins.

Twice in the last month Atkins, a 76-year-old U.S. district court judge here, has blocked Administration efforts to forcibly repatriate the refugees who sailed into U.S. custody while trying to flee their strife-torn homeland. Today, Justice Department lawyers will have another chance in Atkins’ courtroom.

Atkins will hear oral arguments on a motion by refugee advocates requesting a permanent ban on forced repatriation until the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service improves its process for reviewing applications for asylum. The government claims that the majority of the boat people are economic--not political--refugees, and thus not eligible for asylum.


The legal sparring has been intense over the past two weeks, as more and more Haitians have fled their Caribbean nation in the wake of the military coup that overthrew democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Most are being held in Cuba at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo, while others are camped aboard the decks of Coast Guard cutters.

Atkins has been at the center of the ring. On Tuesday, hours after the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned his temporary injunction against repatriation, Atkins fired back with another one, effectively tying the government’s hands again.

Whatever the outcome of today’s ruling, it is sure to be appealed by the losing side. And to further complicate matters, the 11th Circuit Thursday night again overruled Atkins, saying the government can send the refugees home.

There was no immediate move by the government to act on the new appellate ruling.

U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr is expected to speak for the government today. His first appearance before Atkins on Dec. 2, seeking to get the judge to lift the temporary injunction, did not go well. Starr refused Atkins’ request to discuss a one-day extension of the ban. Obviously irritated, the judge ended the hearing by abruptly stalking out of the courtroom.

Commented Diana Johnson-Martin, Atkins’ secretary for 18 years: “I’ve never seen him do that before. That was unusual for him.”

Indeed, Atkins’ reputation is of a man born to the bench, a patient listener who has rarely, if ever, been known to raise his voice in anger. Veteran trial lawyer Milton Hirsch, who has appeared before Atkins several times, describes him as “an old-time Southern judge, careful and concerned with duty, and never tempted to rush through the docket.”

A onetime colleague on the federal bench simply called him “St. Clyde.”

A slight man, Atkins is a devoted family man who is active in the Roman Catholic church and whose hobby is raising orchids. He grew up in Miami, the eldest son of a pharmacist, received his law degree from the University of Florida and was in private practice when appointed to the federal bench in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Through much of the 1960s and 1970s, he presided over cases involving school desegregation in several Florida counties, and although considered conservative by many lawyers, distinguished himself as a staunch opponent of segregated schools.

In a previous case involving Haitians, Atkins reinstated legal resident status for some 14,000 farm workers who faced deportation. The government appealed, and the judge’s decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1982 Atkins denied a motion by the state of Florida to force the Ronald Reagan Administration to resume federal aid to 32,000 Haitian and Cuban refugees.

Attorneys for the current group of refugees have argued that INS interviews are inadequate to determine which of the Haitians have credible claims of political asylum and deserve entry to the United States.

Since the interdiction policy was adopted in 1981 under the Reagan Administration, only 28 of some 22,000 Haitians stopped at sea were allowed into the United States.

But since the latest migration of boat people began Oct. 29, more than 1,180 have been identified as potential political refugees.

Refugee advocates credit Atkins with prodding the government into making improvements in its interview procedures, which include bringing the Haitians to Guantanamo and giving them more time to explain the reasons they left home.

Atkins, a grandfather of eight, returns to the bench today after attending a granddaughter’s college graduation Thursday in North Carolina.

But no one expects the septuagenarian to be fatigued or distracted. To some who know him, “hard-working” does not begin to describe Atkins. Alison Igoe, a former law clerk of Atkins and now a federal public defender, said the judge has a habit of adding the day and time to the bottom of each of his memos. “When you get a note that has the time 2:13 a.m. on it, it can make you feel guilty about not working longer hours,” she said.