Judicial independence under attack in Newton case
The recent federal indictments of a sitting Newton District Court judge and court officer for obstruction of justice has appropriately called into question the propriety of the charges and whether this extraordinary exercise of federal authority over a coequal branch of government is politically motivated.
Examined in the context of the current toxic political debate over immigration, the indictments are a barely disguised attempt to compel judges in our state courts to hew to a draconian immigration regimen that subjugates the respect for due process and individual liberty that judges are pledged to protect in our courts.
State court judges should not be compelled to surrender their independence or shirk their duty to see that justice is done in order to accommodate the expedient dispatch of immigrants from our country. Judicial independence in the Commonwealth predates the United States Constitution itself. John Adams, the primary author of our state constitution, envisioned an independent judiciary, separate from the legislative and executive branches and “subservient to none.” At least in modern times, it has remained so, unfettered by federal interference of the sort represented by these indictments.
Now the prospect of a federal indictment hangs over every disposition involving an immigrant when the judge is called on to balance competing law enforcement objectives with the duty to protect the constitutional rights of the persons who stand before her. What if that choice is deemed insufficiently deferential to the federal interests?
Not all undocumented immigrants coming before the court are defendants; they are also victims and witnesses seeking justice in their own causes. Judges know that when deportation ensues, fundamental due process rights may be minimal or nonexistent. Once an immigrant is on a plane headed back to their home country, those who have defenses to deportation cannot exercise them.
Immigrants, regardless of their legal status, seek and are entitled to the same measure of justice as that granted to every other litigant. Judges are bound by their oaths to respond accordingly.
It is within this cauldron of competing federal and state interests, complicated by the need for sensitivity to basic human rights, that this Newton District Court judge attempted to navigate a routine but complex court proceeding. It was done, as Attorney General William Barr opined in another case of potential obstruction of justice, without a “corrupt intent.”
Without taking a position on the merits of the charges, or possible defenses, no one, including judges, should interfere with any lawful process. But, whatever infractions may have been committed could be addressed by admonition and training, or by sanctions imposed by the Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Public access and a free press insure essential transparency in all court proceedings and go a long way in keeping judges accountable. The indictments were unnecessary and overreaching. While judges are certainly not above the law, targeting a judge for the exercise of her judgment is not justice and undermines the judicial independence essential to the mission of our courts.
As Barr recently urged, “We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon.” Perhaps this sentiment will reestablish the longstanding comity between our courts and federal authorities.
Barbara Dortch-Okara formerly served as chief justice for administration and management of the Massachusetts Trial Court. Geraldine S. Hines is a former justice of the Supreme Judicial Court. Christopher J. Muse is a former superior court judge.