Labor Agreement Is a First for Immigration Judges

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales is instituting annual evaluations for the judges.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales is instituting annual evaluations for the judges. (By Mark Lambie -- Associated Press)
By Stephen Barr
Friday, August 11, 2006

After seven years of negotiations, the Justice Department and a union representing 218 immigration judges signed their first collective-bargaining agreement yesterday.

Leaders of the union, the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the contract would improve communication between Justice headquarters and the judges, who serve in 53 cities and detention centers across the country, by guaranteeing quarterly meetings to discuss security, workload and other issues.

By most accounts, immigration law is second only to tax law in complexity, and interest in immigration issues and deportation cases has risen sharply since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The judges, who are employees of the Justice Department, handle about 300,000 cases a year, rendering final agency decisions on asylum claims and some national security issues.

"We have more public interest in the courts and in immigration, and it makes our job even more challenging," said Denise Slavin , the association's president.

In recent months, the immigration judges have been hit with a series of complaints about their temperament and the quality of their decisions, prompting a review by senior Justice officials. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told a meeting of the judges on Wednesday that the review found "the vast majority of immigration judges discharge their duties in a manner of which we can all be proud," according to his prepared remarks.

Gonzales, however, said some judges "on rare occasions do behave inappropriately toward those appearing before them," but said the conduct "seems to be an individual problem rather than a systemic one." He noted that immigration judges "often operate under pressures that would try even the most patient among us."

Working conditions were a factor in the formation of the union. For most judges, weekly workloads allow only four hours off the bench and require 36 hours on. During hearings, judges have little staff assistance and often operate tape machines. They issue extemporaneous verbal rulings at the end of hearings.

"We don't have the bells and whistles that federal courts have," said Dana Leigh Marks , a judge who helped negotiate the contract. "We work in extremely spartan situations with a tremendous caseload."

Gonzales signaled he is ready to take steps to improve the performance of the immigration courts. A Justice announcement listed 21 proposals, including budget increases in fiscal 2008 and the hiring of more judges. The department also called for better training and up-to-date reference materials that reflect the law of the federal circuits in which the immigration judges sit.

The attorney general also said he plans to have the judges face annual performance evaluations for the first time. "These appraisals will focus on professionalism and quality of work product" and "will respect your special obligations as adjudicators," Gonzales said.

Slavin said the union is "not eager" to embrace performance evaluations, in part because they could raise concerns about judicial independence and "create perceptions among the public that judges are being influenced in reaching their decisions."

But, she added, the issue can be discussed at the negotiating table, "now that we have a collective-bargaining agreement."

AFGE Reelects Gage

John Gage , president of the American Federation of Government Employees, was reelected to a second three-year term late Wednesday in Atlanta.

Gage defeated a former union president, Bobby Harnage , in a runoff election, winning about 52 percent of the vote. Larry Raney , the head of a Bureau of Prisons local, was eliminated in the first round of balloting, a union spokeswoman said.

J. David Cox was selected as AFGE's national secretary-treasurer, defeating Kitty Peddicord . Andrea E. Brooks was reelected as national vice president and women's director, defeating Marilyn Wiley .

Talk Shows

Ron Ault , president of the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department, and Don Hale , chairman of the AFGE Defense Conference Steering Group, will discuss the Defense Department's new National Security Personnel System at 10 a.m. today on "Inside Government," an AFGE-sponsored program, on http://federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).

John R. MacDonald , assistant commissioner for information and technology at Customs and Border Protection, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. Saturday on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.


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