Priest's Tale Reveals Overloaded Immigration Courts

Roman Catholic priest Robert Vitaglione has been taking on a huge caseload of legal representation of immigrants in court for decades. The only problem: he is not a lawyer.

Father Vitaglione has done his best to represent immigrants in New York, but has finally been instructed not to do so any more. The New York Times reports: “Disheveled and disorganized, Father Vitaglione sometimes jeopardized cases with his erratic behavior, according to a federal finding.” He began taking on more cases than were manageable and some of his work began to fall through the cracks, resulting in poor outcomes for his clients.

The departure of Father Vitaglione has exposed a gaping hole in representation for immigrants. Emergency meetings have been convened to address the even greater lack of representation for immigrants, in the wake of Vitaglione’s departure. He was not the only nonlawyer representing illegal immigrants, a practice permitted in immigration courts. The article reports:

“New York has dozens of these so-called accredited representatives. But none had the caseload or recognition of Father Vitaglione, who was known inside the courthouses as Father Bob. He had more clients than the Legal Aid Society’s entire immigration unit.”

Opinions differ on whether “Father Bob” was providing a service that helped keep overloaded court dockets moving, or if he was simply masking the extent of the problem. That problem, however, is undeniable; sixty percent of detained immigrants and twenty seven percent of nondetained immigrants were unrepresented in court in New York in 2009. The article continues:

“Immigrants who represent themselves also slow down a system with no room for slack. Each judge’s docket can reach 2,000 cases, and immigrants without lawyers are left with only judges to explain technicalities, help with paperwork and assume some responsibilities of counsel.”

Many lawyers hope this will be a wake-up call for the legal community, and it will find a solution for the vastly inadequate representation in immigration courts. Until then, Father Bob continues to “supervise” cases taken on by his organization, the Committee of Our Lady of Loreto for Hispanic Immigration Affairs.

Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • President Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court 30 years ago is the topic of a commentary in Huffington Post by Meg Waite Clayton.
  • Talk among some liberals that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ought to retire, for reasons of political timing, is analyzed by Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter in Bloomberg and is critiqued by James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal. Taranto’s column is headlined, “Ruthless People.”
  •  Saying the federal immigration court in Las Vegas is “swamped,” a Las Vegas (Nevada) Sun editorial calls for immigration reform with this exhortation in the headline: “Republicans should quit blocking debate on how to fix a broken policy.”

Second Look at PA City Immigration Rules Ordered

A federal appeals court was directed by the Supreme Court on Monday to reconsider its ruling that Hazleton, Pa. may not enforce its crackdown on illegal immigrants.

The Supreme Court, drawing on its recent decision that upheld an Arizona employer-sanctions law (see Gavel Grab), threw out an earlier ruling by the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Associated Press reported.

The appeals court had said Hazleton could not enforce regulations that would fine landlords if they rent to illegal immigrants and that would deny permits to businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

“It is … not our job to sit in judgment of whether state and local frustration about federal immigration policy is warranted. We are, however, required to intervene when states and localities directly undermine the federal objectives embodied in statutes enacted by Congress,” wrote Chief Judge Theodore McKee of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (see Gavel Grab).

Sanctions on Employers of Illegal Immigrants Upheld

The Supreme Court upheld on Thursday an Arizona law that sanctions employers for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, and it said such employers can lose their license to do business.

The 5-3 opinion represented a defeat for some civil rights groups who brought the challenge along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and for the Obama administration, according to a Los Angeles Times article. This coalition contended that under federal law,  states are not allowed to impose “civil or criminal sanctions” on employers.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who wrote the majority opinion, said the challenged Arizona law was similar to ones enacted recently by Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, according to a New York Times report.

Roberts wrote that part of federal law clearly permits states to penalize employers by using their “licensing” statutes. In the decision, Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, he was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Dissenting, with the view that states are barred by federal law from setting immigration-related mandates on businesses, were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Elena Kagan stepped aside from participating in the case. The former U.S. solicitor general has recused herself from hearing a number of matters where she had some involvement in a case in lower courts.

Critics said the Arizona law amounted to a “business death penalty” (see Gavel Grab).

The ruling did not involve a more controversial Arizona immigration law that would allow local police a larger role in arresting people whom they suspect came illegally to the United States.

ABA: Resources Needed for Immigration Courts

The nation’s immigration system is in “crisis” with courts struggling to cope with mounting caseloads, an American Bar Association representative told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Our immigration system is in crisis, overburdened and under-resourced, leading to the frustration of those responsible for its administration and endangering due process for those who appear before it,” Karen Grisez, chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration, told the panel written testimony, according to an ABA Journal article.

Between 1996 and 2009 the number of non-citizens removed from the country increased more than 450 percent, she testified, without any commensurate additional resources for immigration courts.

The ABA has urged U.S. lawmakers to eliminate the existing immigration courts system and replace it with a new, independent court. You can learn more about those ABA recommendations from Gavel Grab. The ABA is a Justice at Stake partner.

AZ Plans Immigration Appeal to High Court

Arizona will ask the Supreme Court to lift an injunction that enjoined the most controversial sections of the state’s new immigration law from taking effect, Gov. Jan Brewer (photo) announced Monday.

“The decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the suspension of key provisions of Senate Bill 1070 does harm to the safety and well-being of all Arizonans, who suffer the negative effects of illegal immigration,” Brewer said, according to an Arizona Republic article.

“So instead of appealing to the larger, en banc panel of the 9th Circuit Court, my legal team will soon file an immediate petition with the (United States) Supreme Court to lift the injunction of Senate Bill 1070.” An earlier ruling, upholding the injunction, came from a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit.

To learn about U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton’s ruling and injunction last year, check out Gavel Grab. She received hate mail and death threats after issuing her decision.

Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • A panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton’s ruling last year that enjoined the most controversial sections of Arizona’s new immigration law from taking effect, according to a Los Angeles Times article. To learn about her ruling, see Gavel Grab.
  • Former Judge Michael Toole of Luzerne County, Pa. was sentenced to 30 months in prison for his guilty plea to corruption and tax-related charges, according to a Wilkes-Barre Times Leader article. For background on his case, see Gavel Grab.
  • Iowa Supreme Court Justice Tom Waterman, newly appointed to the court, used a panel discussion to defend Iowa’s merit system of selecting judges. He was critical of judicial selection in neighboring Illinois, where state Supreme Court justices are elected, according to a Quad-City Times article. Justice Waterman said, “Across the river, millions of dollars are poured into races and lawyers and judges are making promises.”
  • A judicial selection reform plan floated by retired Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Weaver should be put “on the front burner” for discussion by lawmakers, said an editorial in the Livingston (Mich.) Daily.

Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • As another installment in a series, the Associated Press published an article entitled, “How to fix ‘massive crisis’ in immigration courts.”
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the controversial judicial nomination of law professor Goodwin Liu for the third time in a year, although his Republican critics were unforgiving about Liu’s criticisms of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, the Blog of Legal Times reported. The panel also approved the nomination of Paul Oetken for a district court judgeship in New York (see Gavel Grab for articles about Liu or Oetken).
  • “‘Advice and consent’ means voting, not obstructing,” declared the headline for a Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial about the judicial nomination of John J. McConnell of Rhode Island, and the posture of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, regarding it.

Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • “Immigration court: Troubled system, long waits” is the headline for an Associated Press report that launches a multiple-part series.
  • If the federal government shuts down due to a budget impasse in Washington, there would be no visible disruption of the federal courts for two weeks, the Blog of Legal Times quoted a federal judiciary spokesman as saying.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on approving President Obama’s nomination of J. Paul Oetken to a district court judgeship in New York, the Washington Blade reported. If confirmed, Oetken could become the first openly gay male on the federal bench.

Tuesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • A doomsday legal manual published in New York is intended to serve “as a guide for judges and lawyers who could face grim questions in another terrorist attack, a major radiological or chemical contamination or a widespread epidemic,” the New York Times reported.
  • At the end of December, the backlog of cases pending before immigrations had climbed to a record high, said a report by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, as reported by Fox News Latino. The backlog was  44 percent higher than levels at the end of FY 2008.
  • The House of Representatives tried a second time (see Gavel Grab) and this time succeeded in passing a bill to extend key provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the nation’s central counterterrorism law, to Dec. 8. The Senate is expected to pass the House measure, according to a New York Times article.