A Newton District Court judge has gotten herself into a heap of trouble. And no matter how much one may credit her good intentions, Judge Shelley A. Joseph should not sit on criminal cases until her own legal situation is resolved.
The Globe reported over the weekend that a federal grand jury is investigating whether court personnel, including Joseph, helped a twice-deported immigrant evade federal immigration agents waiting to take him into custody.
A judge who is herself under investigation is a defense lawyer’s dream come true, and it’s hard to see how Joseph can hear cases as long as the federal inquiry continues.
At the heart of the controversy is a 58-second gap in the audio recording of a sidebar conference. In that recording, the judge can be heard saying, “ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is going to get him” and then instructing a court clerk to turn off the recording.
When it resumes, the attorney for Jose Medina-Perez asks if he can accompany his client downstairs to the lock-up because “he has got some property” there. As the arraignment concluded, a court employee tells the judge, “There was a representative from ICE here . . . requesting permission to visit lock-up.”
“I’m not going to allow them to come in here,” Joseph is heard responding.
Medina-Perez, who was released on pending drug charges, reportedly left through a rear courthouse door. He was actually captured later that month and subsequently freed by an immigration judge while his case is pending.
The presence of ICE agents in courthouses — both state and federal — has been a matter of heightened concern. Their presence can hamper justice by scaring away witnesses and victims. The state’s Trial Court now has a policy that requires judges and other court personnel to neither help nor hinder federal agents.
If Joseph schemed with Medina-Perez’s lawyer to help him avoid ICE, that sounds a lot like hindering. At the time of the April 2 arraignment, Joseph, a longtime defense lawyer, had been on the bench for about six months. But there really isn’t any room in the criminal justice system for rookie mistakes.
There’s also her worrisome decision to shut off the courtroom recording device, in violation of the court’s own rules. Transparency — or a lack thereof — has important consequences for the administration of justice. We have certainly seen that in operation at the clerk-magistrate level, where show-cause hearings are nearly always held in secret and recording of them is only a sometime thing. If the 58-second gap were Joseph’s only sin, the head of the Trial Court system could send her to the judicial equivalent of reeducation camp and the matter probably would fade from view.
“The Trial Court previously reviewed the information regarding the tape recording of the court proceeding and addressed it with Judge Joseph. As it is a personnel matter, the court cannot comment further,” said Jennifer Donahue, a spokeswoman for the Trial Court. But the convening of a federal grand jury to explore the incident raises it to a whole other order of magnitude. It creates an element of uncertainty in every criminal case that comes before Joseph.
So while Governor Charlie Baker has absolutely no ability to order a change in Joseph’s status, he does have the bully pulpit necessary to make the judicial branch at least think about removing Joseph from criminal sessions in the district court. That power rests solely with the head of the Trial Court, Chief Justice Paula Carey. For the sake of the orderly administration of justice, she ought to exercise that power immediately.