Six Boston College law professors have signed onto a brief urging the federal court of Boston to drop the obstruction charges against Shelley Joseph, a Newton District Court judge. Joseph has been accused of helping a man escape from the courthouse while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers waited in the front to detain him in April of 2018. She filed a motion to have her charges dropped on Sept. 6.
The six professors were part of a group of 61 retired judges to sign on. Ten BC Law alumni also put their names on the letter.
“The federal prosecution of a sitting Massachusetts state court judge, premised on acts undertaken in the normal course of the judge’s rightful exercise of judicial discretion and in furtherance of the constitutional obligation to protect the rights of the individual who stands before her, poses a serious and unwarranted threat to the independence of state court judges,” the brief says.
Judges have the power to hold control over their courtrooms, and to “check, limit, and reject” the executive branch, the document says.
“I just try to put myself in her shoes, because I’ve been there,” said Paul Chernoff, BC Law professor who signed onto the brief. “Not with this kind of case, but I’ve been in that courtroom.”
Chernoff worked in the Newton District Court for eight years at the beginning of his judicial career, just as Joseph did. Joseph had been working on the bench for four months when she was arrested. Chernoff said he understands the stress and pressure new judges are under—they could be the youngest person in the room with more experienced lawyers, police, and other courtroom staff. Still, it is their responsibility to control the courtroom and everything that goes on within it, he said.
“What happened to her, I would call it overkill,” said Edward Ginsburg, a retired judge and BC Law professor who signed onto the brief. “Great, great overkill.”
Both professors agree that Joseph’s case could, and should, have been handled by the local and state courts, instead of being moved into the federal courts.
“I have tried to be very careful about expressing any view about whether or not the judge did something right or the judge did something wrong,” Chernoff said. “I simply say that if the judge did something wrong, it should have been handled by the state.”
Fifteen law professors from across the country submitted another amicus brief on Tuesday in support of Joseph. The professors argue that the prosecution of Joseph is the “most flagrant attempt to commandeer states” in violation of the 10th Amendment. The lawyers teach at 12 schools, including Yale Law School, University of California Berkeley Law School, and New York University Law School.
Joseph did not have any personal interest in allowing the man, Jose Medina Perez, to escape from the courthouse, according to the brief. She was not accused of specifically ordering the court officer to allow Perez to exit out the back door. The judge filed to have the charges against her dropped two weeks ago. If her prosecution continues, the effects in Massachusetts will be “devastating,” the judges wrote in the brief.
“Saying ‘no’ to executive actors is part of every judge’s job. Yet, if Judge Joseph is prosecuted, every Massachusetts judge in every Massachusetts courthouse will feel a constant external pressure to refrain from actions that might antagonize federal officials,” the brief says.
“That pressure will be particularly acute in cases where noncitizens are before the court as parties or witnesses. Judges cannot be impartial in the execution of their judicial duties if they are under pressure to ingratiate themselves to federal prosecutors.”
Joseph came under fire after the Boston Globe Spotlight team reported in December of 2018 that the judge has helped Medina-Perez to escape. She allegedly instructed a court officer, Wesley MacGregor, to take Medina-Perez downstairs to retrieve something. MacGregor then used his security access card to open the sally-port exit downstairs and release Medina-Perez out the back, according to court documents.
Joseph and MacGregor were indicted in April—Joseph was offered a plea deal in May, but she turned it down. Had she accepted, she would have had to admit guilt, and prosecutors would have dropped the charges against her. It is unclear whether she would have been able to continue on the bench.
The case has divided the state, as some have applauded the prosecutors for pressing charges against the judge, while others say the move is political and an attack on the independence of the courts.
The judges who signed on to support Joseph worked in Supreme Judicial Court, District Court, Probate and Family Court, Superior Court, Boston Municipal Court, Juvenile Court, Housing Court, Appeals Court, and Land Court.
“I signed on with hopes that somehow 61 of us would be able to push the case, at least a little bit, in a direction that might resolve it for her,” Chernoff said.
Correction (9/23/19, 10:50 a.m.): BC Law professors have signed onto a brief urging the federal court of Boston to drop the obstruction charges, not the Supreme Court as was originally reported.
Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Editor