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SJC reinstates Newton judge accused of helping undocumented immigrant evade ICE agent

Judge Shelley Joseph’s case remains under review by the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct after conspiracy and obstruction charges were dropped

Newton District Court Judge Shelley Joseph, shown leaving Federal Court in Boston on April 25, 2019.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The state’s high court ended the suspension of Newton District Court Judge Shelley Joseph on Wednesday, allowing her to return to the bench after the justice department dropped charges accusing her of helping an undocumented immigrant evade a federal agent who had come to the courthouse to detain him in 2018.

The Supreme Judicial Court ordered Joseph to be reinstated because her suspension was “based solely on the fact that she had been indicted for alleged misconduct in the performance of her judicial duties,” according to a copy of the ruling.

“The charges in the indictment against the judge have now been dismissed ... The order of suspension, therefore, is terminated, effective immediately,” the SJC’s ruling said.

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Joseph was suspended in April 2019 after the Massachusetts US attorney’s office indicted her and a now-retired court officer on obstruction-of-justice charges, accusing them of preventing a federal agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement from taking an immigrant into custody by allowing him to leave the courthouse through a secured back door, while the agent was ordered to wait in a lobby.

Joseph’s attorney, Michael Keating, said she is looking forward to returning to work and is awaiting a court assignment.

“The suspension has been in effect for quite a while and now she is pleased she can resume her duties and is grateful the Supreme Judicial Court lifted this suspension,” Keating said in an interview Wednesday night.

The Executive Office of the Trial Court did respond to questions about the case Wednesday including when Joseph might be assigned.

“I think she’s amenable to go wherever the district court wants her to serve,” Keating said.

Those charges came while the Trump administration was in power and vowing to more aggressively target undocumented immigrants. They were dismissed this fall after Joseph agreed to refer her case to the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct, where it remains under review.

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“Judge Joseph is confident she’ll get a fair and hopefully speedy resolution of that matter before the commission and get the whole thing behind,” Keating said.

In the weeks after the charges were dropped, Joseph’s lawyer sought to have her suspension revoked in a motion filed with the SJC on Oct. 11. In the filing, Keating argued that the commission’s review of Joseph’s case should not prevent her from resuming her position on the bench.

“Judge Joseph has not been found by the Commission or otherwise to have violated any provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct, and Judge Joseph consistently maintained her innocence in the face of the federal indictment,” Keating wrote.

Keating described the indictment brought against Joseph as “an unprecedented intrusion by the United States in the independence of the Massachusetts judiciary ...”

Joseph’s lawyers have said she was targeted as part of a campaign led by former president Donald Trump to enforce his hardline immigration policies. The indictments were also criticized by Democrats who said the charges were politically motivated.

In a “statement of facts” filed with the motion to dismiss in September, Joseph acknowledged that she was the only judge sitting at Newton District Court on April 2, 2018, when an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic appeared before her facing two drug possession charges and a fugitive warrant for drunken driving charges in Pennsylvania.

At the time, the man was initially identified as Jose Medina-Perez, but he was later confirmed to be Oscar Manuel Peguero. The fugitive charge was dropped after a state prosecutor concluded the Pennsylvania warrant was for a different man and recommended Peguero be released on bail.

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Meanwhile, an ICE agent arrived at the Newton courthouse with a warrant to apprehend Peguero and initiate deportation proceedings after fingerprints taken by police showed he had previously been deported from the United States in 2003 and 2007.

As part of her agreement with prosecutors, Joseph acknowledged she ordered the ICE agent to remain outside the courtroom.

Joseph also admitted that, contrary to state court rules, she ordered a recording of the proceeding turned off for 52 seconds while she spoke with Peguero’s lawyer, who asked her to let his client “go back downstairs.”

The judge acknowledged that she granted that request, even though she knew that the agent was waiting in the lobby. Peguero was arrested later that month on the immigration charge and was freed on bond by an immigration judge, according to ICE.

Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico.