Immigration Judges Handed Ethics Guidelines, Not Rules

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Justice Department has created its first-ever ethics manual for the nation's immigration judges, spelling out a standard of behavior for a corps that has been criticized for its treatment of immigrants.

The 34-page manual, released publicly this week, instructs immigration judges to be "patient, deliberate, dignified and courteous." It tells them to "respect and adhere to the principles of ethical conduct to ensure that both citizens and noncitizens can have complete confidence in the integrity of the federal government."

But the handbook lacks teeth. In a memo to the judges, Executive Office for Immigration Review Director Kevin Rooney noted that the manual "does not impose any additional standards or requirements" upon them. He said that references to the American Bar Assn.'s Model Code of Judicial Conduct were not binding but were "intended to serve as aspirational guidance."

Work Continues on Standards

Rick Kenney, a spokesman for the immigration review office, said the manual is merely a guideline.

"The immigration judges and EOIR are working on drafting standards that would be more binding," Kenney said, adding that it will take two more years for its completion.

Immigration judges have enormous power over the lives of many immigrants seeking to live in the United States. Most immigrants appear before them without lawyers in what is usually a futile effort to avoid deportation.

Some of the people in immigration court are seeking asylum; others are seeking permanent residency. All have been charged with violating immigration laws, in many cases by entering the country illegally. There are 219 immigration judges across the country, including 54 in California.

A Los Angeles Times study of the U.S. immigration courts earlier this year documented a system in which judges were overburdened, immigrants were intimidated and justice was often arbitrary. In nine out of 10 cases, judges ordered immigrants deported. But those with lawyers were 17 times more likely to avoid deportation than those without them.

Despite calls for accountability, immigration judges--unlike other judges--were not subject to a written code of conduct.

The new manual, which was years in the making, is the first time a standard of conduct for immigration judges has been codified.

It notes that most of the people who appear before the judges are noncitizens but that they too deserve to have faith in the system.

An earlier proposal for a written code of conduct came from the judges themselves in 1994, but it was never adopted by the Justice Department. Critics say it's too little, too late.

Most of the handbook is devoted to ethical quagmires that judges should avoid: from accepting a gift worth more than $20 to using staff to help sell Girl Scout cookies to belonging to an organization that "practices invidious discrimination."

"I think it misses the mark," said Jeffrey A. Heller, who teaches at Brooklyn Law School's Safe Harbor Project and has practiced immigration law for more than 18 years. He noted that he has never heard anyone accuse an immigration judge of financial misfeasance, which is the focus of much of the manual.

"When you know the system, it's no surprise that an EOIR ethics manual discusses whether an immigration judge can eat pastries at a conference but has nothing to say about whether it's proper for an immigration judge to shout at and threaten an asylum applicant who's sobbing while telling how he found his sister's body with her throat cut," Heller said.

The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates allegations of misconduct against judges, drafted the manual. A spokesman said the decision to develop a manual was not related to any complaints.

It is unclear what kind of complaints--and how many--have been investigated. Lawyers who have filed complaints against judges say they often never hear back from Justice officials. And the department, citing privacy concerns, refused to release or confirm the existence of complaints in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Times.

Misconduct Charges Slow to Resolve

But a recent General Accounting Office report referred to two cases in which immigration judges were investigated for alleged misconduct.

Both cases took two years to resolve.

In one case, the Office of Professional Responsibility recommended that the judge be suspended for "reckless disregard" and "intentional misconduct." He was fired in 1997.

In the other, the Justice Department recommended that the judge, who was not named in the report, either be suspended or fired. The judge "agreed to submit a request for voluntary retirement in exchange for Justice canceling the proposed termination and removing any mention of it from his personnel file," the GAO reported.

That judge was Roy J. Daniel of Los Angeles, the subject of complaints from immigrants and their lawyers for more than a decade for his rude and at times hostile behavior.

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Previous Times articles on immigration court can be found at http://www.latimes.com/asylum.

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