Attorney General Maura Healey on Thursday blasted the federal indictment of a state district court judge on obstruction charges for allegedly helping an undocumented immigrant defendant evade a federal immigration officer last year in Newton District Court.
“Today’s indictment is a radical and politically-motivated attack on our state and the independence of our courts,” Healey said in a statement. “It is a bedrock principle of our constitutional system that federal prosecutors should not recklessly interfere with the operation of state courts and their administration of justice. This matter could have been appropriately handled by the Commission on Judicial Conduct and the Trial Court. I am deeply disappointed by U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling’s misuse of prosecutorial resources and the chilling effect his actions will have.”
The remarks from Healey, a Democrat, came shortly after Lelling, an appointee of President Trump, announced the indictments against now-suspended Judge Shelley M. Richmond Joseph, 51, and Wesley MacGregor, 56, a former court officer who retired last month.
Governor Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican who appointed Joseph to the bench, was more measured in his comments.
“The policy that . . . the courts have is a good policy,” Baker said in an interview. “If you read the indictment, it does not appear the court policies were actually followed.” He said Joseph is “qualified to sit on the bench but as I said at the time of these incidents, I was disturbed by them. I still am.”
He also pointed to legislation he filed last legislative session that would have allowed local authorities to hold someone wanted by federal immigration officials for up to 48 hours. The goal, he said, was to have detainer issues addressed “in lockup and not in courtrooms.”
“This was one of our concerns about it in the first place,” Baker said. “If there was no detainer policy in Massachusetts, what would end up happening is this stuff would end up getting addressed in court.”
Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge who now teaches at Harvard Law School and who last year published a Globe op-ed defending Joseph after the story broke, was firmly in Healey’s camp Thursday.
In a telephone interview, Gertner called Lelling’s decision to seek criminal charges against a state court judge an act of “grandstanding.”
“The notion of hauling a state court judge into federal court under these circumstances is outrageous,” Gertner said. “It has implications beyond Judge Joseph. Are they going to go into a church and arrest the reverend for permitting sanctuary to immigrants? There are so many levels to this incredibly excessive, overreaching, grandstanding prosecution.”
In a press conference Thursday and a follow-up statement, Lelling defended the prosecution as a necessary step to uphold the rule of law.
“The allegations in today’s indictment involve obstruction by a sitting judge, that is intentional interference with the enforcement of federal law, and that is a crime,” Lelling said. “We cannot pick and choose the federal laws we follow, or use our personal views to justify violating the law. Everyone in the justice system — not just judges, but law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and defense counsel — should be held to a higher standard. The people of Massachusetts expect that, just like they expect judges to be fair, impartial and to follow the law themselves.”
Todd M. Lyons, acting Boston field office director for the enforcement and removal operations section of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also defended the charges.
“The actions of the judge in this incident are a detriment to the rule of law and highly offensive to the law enforcement officers of ICE who swear an oath to uphold our nation’s immigration laws,” Lyons said. “In order for our criminal justice system to work fairly for all people, it must be protected against judicial officials who would seek to replace the implementation of our laws with their own ideological views or politically-driven agenda. I would also like to thank U.S. Attorney Lelling for his local leadership and his continuous and faithful support of the ERO law enforcement mission.”
But Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, called the decision to charge Joseph and MacGregor “preposterous, ironic, and deeply damaging to the rule of law,” noting that President Trump has also been accused to trying to obstruct justice during the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
“In contrast to [US] Attorney General William Barr’s famously narrow view of what constitutes obstruction of justice—at least when it comes to President Trump — the Department of Justice has now charged a state judge and court security officer based on a theory of obstruction that is shockingly aggressive,” Rose said in a statement. “In this case, like so many others across Massachusetts, an ICE officer staked out a state court and made it difficult for court officials to do their job, which is to ensure that people in state court have access to justice. But instead of rethinking its own awful behavior, the federal government has now charged a judge and a court officer with crimes.”
Rose’s opinion wasn’t shared by advocates favoring tighter immigration enforcement, including the Center for Immigration Studies based in Washington, D.C.
Jessica Vaughan, the center’s director of policy studies, tweeted after the indictment was made public that “this is about immigration enforcement. Sanctuaries [sanctuary cities] single out ICE for non-cooperation and obstruction. Sanctuary officials don’t do this to DEA or other state” law enforcement agencies.
Referring to a comment by Lelling at his news conference that he had heard “gasps” at the notion of a judge being charged, Vaughan wrote, “Gasps? :) How dare the feds take action against a rogue judge who wants to protect a criminal alien at the expense of her community!”