Court of Appeals Strengthens Government Transparency

Court Rejects Government Attempt to Categorically Redact Names of Immigration Judges in Response to Request for Disclosure of Complaints

August 1, 2016

Washington D.C. – An appellate court has ruled for an immigration group in a lawsuit against the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) challenging its response to a request for information regarding alleged misconduct by immigration judges (IJs) and records that would reveal whether the agency adequately investigates and resolves complaints against IJs. The lawsuit was filed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), which is represented by attorneys at Public Citizen and the American Immigration Council (Council).

In evaluating whether the names of the IJs should be disclosed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit disagreed with the government’s contention that the privacy interests of the IJs categorically outweigh the public interest in disclosure. The court remanded the case to the district court to reassess the propriety of releasing individual IJ names.

Further, the appellate court held that, once the government identifies a document as “responsive” to a FOIA request, it cannot redact information within that document as “non-responsive.” Instead, the agency must cite a specific FOIA exemption for each redaction.

“The court’s decision recognizes the significant public interest in learning about complaints against immigration judges, particularly where the complaints concern on-the-bench conduct and judges who are repeat offenders,” said Julie Murray, an attorney with Public Citizen and lead counsel on the case. “The decision is an important step in holding EOIR accountable for addressing immigration judges’ misconduct and in opening up the secretive complaint process to the public. The court also rightly put a stop to the government’s practice of slicing and dicing records for disclosure based on whether an agency believes individual sentences and paragraphs in a record are responsive.  This practice has invited abuse by government agencies that want to withhold embarrassing information. As the court held, it has no basis in law.”
Beth Werlin, Executive Director of the American Immigration Council, said, “With nearly half a million cases in the immigration court backlog and long delays for a hearing, without a doubt, immigration judges are overloaded and under-resourced. Yet, the importance of the immigration court system cannot be overstated as decisions made by these judges may mean life or death to a child, family or individual. Because of this, the system must be administered in a way that is above reproach.”

AILA President William A. Stock noted, “Maintaining the integrity of the immigration court system is of paramount importance and demands the highest levels of transparency. This case has always been about ensuring that any allegations of misconduct are addressed in a meaningful way and that judges are held accountable for their actions. This decision is an important step toward ensuring that the system is fair and just, no matter which judge hears your case.”

The case is American Immigration Lawyers Association v. Executive Office for Immigration Review, et al., No. 13-840 (D.D.C. filed June 6, 2013). A copy of the decision is available here. AILA’s complaint and appellate briefs are available here.


For press inquiries, contact:
Don Owens, Public Citizen, 202-588-7767
Belle Woods, AILA, 202-507-7675
Wendy Feliz, Council, 202-507-7524

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