WASHINGTON (CN) – The government improperly invoked a blanket privacy exemption to shield the identities of dozens of immigration judges who faced complaints, a federal judge ruled.
A group called the American Immigration Lawyers Association brought the underlying lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, eventually securing production of 16,000 records maintained by the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
The challengers balked, however, that the records it fought to make public redacted the names of 201 immigration judges whose disciplinary record included complaints between 2009 and November 2012, when the request was filed.
A federal judge sided the government initially, finding the redactions were proper under a FOIA exemption governing personnel records. This decision was reversed by the D.C. Circuit, however, leading U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper to initiate a case-by-case review of each judge’s privacy interests balanced against the public interest.
Cooper noted in his Nov. 17 ruling that the scope of the challenge was narrowed from 201 judges to 34. Of these he found that 14 must be identified.
The reasons for shielding some of the judges’ names varied. In one case, Cooper found that there was only an incremental interest in identifying the active judge who received eight complaints, all of them substantiated, compared to a higher-than average number of hearings. Only five of the complaints against this judge pertained to in-court conduct, the ruling also notes.
Attorneys for American Immigration Lawyers Association with the Public Citizen Litigation Group and the American Immigration Council did not respond to an email seeking comment.
One of the judges whom Cooper wants identified is described in the 22-page ruling as GOE.
This judge accumulated 13 complaints and two suspensions, one of which lasted 14 days for in-court behavior. Though no longer an active judge, GOE still works at the Department of Justice.
"The high level of discipline involved, namely multiple suspensions, indicate the substantiated allegations are more serious," the opinion states. "Given these factors, the incremental interest in disclosure does outweigh the judge’s privacy interest."
A representative for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment, citing a policy on pending litigation.