In a criminal case filed during the Trump administration, Newton District Court Judge Shelley Joseph is accused of impeding a federal immigration arrest of a defendant in her courtroom in 2018. Court papers say the judge blocked a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent from detaining a man who fled the court through a rear door.
Her lawyers sought to argue that she should have immunity as a judge to allow the illegal immigrant to leave the courtroom, and that the prosecution was unconstitutional.
However, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston rejected an appeal to dismiss the case, saying it was “premature.” The three-judge panel said that absent an explicit statutory or constitutional right to avoid trial, she and her courtroom deputy, Wesley MacGregor, would need to face a jury first.
The case is an “apparently unprecedented prosecution” that could “chill other judges from refusing to assist federal officials,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge William Kayatta.
He pointed out, however, that judicial immunity, assuming it applies in the judge’s criminal case, “does not provide a right not to be tried that can serve as a basis for interlocutory review.”
The federal appeals court said it ultimately lacked jurisdiction to review the district court’s decision denying Joseph’s motion to dismiss based on her “asserted common-law defense of judicial immunity.”
“Judge Joseph cannot obtain interlocutory review of her judicial immunity defense unless she can show that her claimed right not to be tried is explicitly grounded in a statute or the Constitution,” wrote Kayatta.
Joseph and her courtroom deputy stand accused of aiding Jose Medina-Perez, an illegal immigrant—who was arrested over a drug charge—to leave the courtroom, and therefore evade arrest by ICE.
The individual had previously been deported from the United States and was prohibited from reentering the country, according to court documents.
“The indictment does not allege that Judge Joseph and Deputy MacGregor merely declined to enforce federal immigration law,” court papers state. “Instead, it alleges that they affirmatively interfered with federal officials’ attempts to enforce federal law.”
The court similarly rejected arguments that the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment bars federal immigration officials from forcing state officials to help enforce federal policy, saying that was a defense they could assert at trial.
The case was first brought under then-U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, a Trump appointee who was succeeded by Rachael Rollins, an appointee of President Joe Biden.
While she was Boston’s district attorney, Rollins sued to block the Trump administration from carrying out immigration arrests at courthouses.
The 1st Circuit in 2020 overturned an injunction she won barring just that, though the Biden administration in April 2021 said it would limit the arrests of migrants in or near courthouses.
Reuters contributed to this report.