fb-pixel Skip to main content

Judge Shelley Joseph shouldn’t be tried. She should be celebrated.

Judge Shelley JosephJessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

How did the persecution of Shelley Joseph and Wesley MacGregor outlast the Donald Trump era?

Joseph is a Newton District Court judge who allegedly thwarted an effort by federal law enforcement to arrest an undocumented immigrant in her courtroom in 2018; MacGregor was her court officer at the time.

A federal appeals court refused this week to dismiss the charges against Joseph and MacGregor, who are awaiting trial. In its ruling, it waved off claims that Joseph is protected by judicial immunity, and essentially said Joseph and MacGregor can make their arguments when they stand trial.

But there shouldn’t be a trial, because this case has been trash from the start.

Advertisement



At its center is a defendant named Jose Molina-Perez. He had entered the country illegally three times, and when he arrived in Joseph’s courtroom for a hearing on drug possession charges, authorities from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were standing by to snatch him.

This occurred during a period of particularly aggressive anti-immigrant law enforcement, in which federal agents were often staking out courts, schools, and other places where immigrants often had no choice but to appear.

Many local law enforcement officials objected to this ramped-up approach, finding it overzealous, which it certainly was,

So on the day that Molina-Perez appeared in court, Joseph ordered the ICE officer out of her courtroom. She put a temporary hold on the case in front of her, and then, while the ICE officer waited in the hallway outside, Molina-Perez was taken downstairs to a storage area, hopped a fence, and got away.

Joseph and MacGregor were accused of facilitating his escape. And three years later, here we are, with a very messy federal prosecution of a state judge still unresolved.

To say this is a quagmire for new US Attorney Rachael Rollins is probably an understatement.

Advertisement



Thanks to her prior role as Suffolk district attorney, Rollins’s feelings about this case are very much public record; she hates it. She filed a brief denouncing it; she was a leading figure in a lawsuit, filed in the wake of Joseph’s indictment, to get ICE out of state courthouses.

“I would be honored to be arrested,” Rollins said at that time of her staunch opposition to the presence of ICE in Massachusetts courtrooms.

In theory, Rollins might now have the authority to drop this ill-begotten case. I say “might” because of course she has superiors in Washington.

Rollins was caricatured by Republicans during her confirmation process as a dangerously left-leaning politician. And if she were to somehow make this case go away, the GOP will howl that she has confirmed every doubt about her. It won’t be true, but truth is no impediment to the Tom Cottons of the world.

For a newly minted US attorney who was confirmed by the narrowest of margins, calling a halt to this case would either be an act of political courage or a moment of political suicide.

Not long after Joseph was indicted, the Justice Department itself seemed to cool on the idea of pursuing undocumented immigrants at every turn. William Barr, who succeeded Jeff Sessions as attorney general, was much more passionate about cybercrime and other issues than he was about putting ICE officers in courtrooms, and the issue gradually lost steam.

But that hasn’t helped Joseph, who has now spent three years in limbo — suspended from the bench and awaiting trial in a weak case many people have virtually forgotten.

Advertisement



At the time of her indictment, the spin from the Justice Department was that no one, not even a judge, was above the law. Then-US Attorney Andrew Lelling went so far as to insist that this case had nothing to do with immigration; it was all about the proper administration of justice.

That was nonsense then, and it still is. This entire incident was spurred by a racist impulse to chase immigrants out of the country. At most, Joseph refused to participate in that by not letting her courtroom function as a trap.

She shouldn’t be tried for that. She should be celebrated.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.