Immigration Judge Prevails in Recusal Dustup

A recently resolved dispute between an Iranian-American immigration judge and the U.S. Department of Justice illustrates how easily one can get carried away with the idea that some judges cannot fairly hear certain cases.

Judge Ashley Tabaddor has heard immigration cases since being appointed to the bench in 2005 by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office. She also is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and former federal law clerk. She has taught courses and written extensively on immigration law since beginning her legal career. In other words, she is eminently qualified to hear immigration cases after 10 years on the bench.

In 2014, Judge Tabaddor sued the Justice Department in response to a recusal order entered against her in 2012 after she attended a roundtable hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement and attended by Iranian-American community leaders. The order, which the judge said violated the U.S. Constitution, prevented her from hearing any cases involving people from Iran.

Whether it was xenophobia or something else, the Justice Department stood behind its position through a series of court filings and hearings until finally agreeing to drop the recusal order and pay Judge Tabaddor $200,000 to in attorneys’ fees and nearly $6,000 in damages.

This situation is not unlike a case in 2009 when San Francisco Judge Vaughn Walker found that banning same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. After the ruling, Walker faced a chorus of undeserved (and often vitriolic) criticism because the judge himself is gay. As pointed out by the California Attorney General, no attempt to bar a federal judge from hearing a case because of race, gender, or religion has ever succeeded.

Think about it: Should Baptist judges be barred from cases involving Baptists? Should Hispanic judges be barred from hearing cases involving Hispanic litigants? And if you think that’s okay, then who would hear divorce cases between a man and a woman?

The fact is that family law judges rule against litigants of their own gender every day in this country. That’s because they are chosen in part for their judicial temperament, which means keeping an open mind and going where the law dictates, regardless of which litigant most resembles them. Judges who can’t do that – and it’s more likely loyalty to money than any personal characteristic that leads them astray – have no business being a judge.

Kudos to Judge Tabaddor for standing up for what’s right. She could have just accepted the unfortunate insult and moved on. Instead, she spent her time and money fighting what is clearly an injustice. Good for her, and good for all of us.

Posted: 11/23/2015 10:37:30 AM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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