After more than six months of operating with two judges instead of four, the Dallas immigration court is finally getting one replacement. Still, Judge Richard Randall Ozmun of El Paso will be arriving in October to a court that's so backlogged that new hearings are being scheduled as far out as early 2008.
Since Judges Edwin R. Hughes and Cary H. Copeland retired, the remaining two jurists have seen their caseloads bulge while attorneys and their clients faced postponed hearings and long waits for short tasks. In the wake of the U.S. attorney firings scandal and a recent Washington Post analysis that shows the Justice Department has made a practice of choosing immigration judges based more on GOP political ties than on expertise, some local immigration lawyers wonder whether the court will be affected by the administration's hiring strategies.
Judge Ozmun is well-respected and has five years of experience in immigration courts in El Paso and Los Angeles, but he'll likely be doing damage control for months.
"This new judge will help a lot. They're saying hearings being scheduled for January or February will be moved back to November," says attorney Angel Cruz. "But for now, we're having a lot of cases backed up." Immigration lawyers are usually trying to buy time for clients, but delays also mean wasted hours.
"I'm having to block out the whole afternoon to go to a 15-minute hearing," says longtime immigration lawyer Fernando Dubove.
Visiting judges have been helping Judges Anthony Rogers and Friedrick Sims but evidently not enough to control the overload. And Dallas' isn't the only court short judges. Charles Miller, Justice Department spokesman in Washington, said there are 31 vacancies nationwide. He couldn't explain why it's taken so long to fill Dallas' slots but suggested it's because of Attorney General Al Gonzales' efforts to "make sure immigration judges are of the highest quality."
Those who have been following recent revelations about the department's hiring practices are doubtful.
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"I'd heard from people within the Executive Office of Immigration Review that there was suspicion that a lot of these judgeships weren't being filled because they were waiting until the end of the term to stick political hacks in those jobs," Dubove says. "I was surprised, but then when that Washington Post story came out, I thought, 'God, that's exactly what he's telling me.'"
The Washington Post report, based on Justice records and research into the backgrounds of immigration judges appointed since 2004, found that one-third of them had Republican connections or were administration insiders, and half lacked experience in immigration law.
This coincides with the recent emphasis on political considerations, which, according to sworn congressional testimony by department officials Kyle Sampson and Monica Goodling, began in 2004. They said they were told the practice was legal, though Justice spokesmen told the Post that immigration judges may not be chosen based on politics, unlike judges in federal criminal courts.
"We're definitely concerned, and we know that's happening," says Cruz. "They're coming from a point of view that's not even respectful of the cases."