Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Meet the rookie federal judge who halted Trump’s refugee deportations — to save a Syrian

By Avi Selk

January 29, 2017 at 3:08 PM

Ann M. Donnelly waited half a year for her chance to convince the Senate that she would make a good federal judge. When the day finally came, she packed as many relatives as she could into the benches.

In her opening comments, she named every single one of them.

Donnelly introduced the senators to her husband, Michael. Her sister Sarah and brother Thomas. And then their spouses and their four children.

And to her mother and late father — “I know he is watching,” she told the Judiciary Committee in the spring of 2015. And her two daughters, and their boyfriends.

And then Saturday night, after a year and a week on the federal bench, Donnelly sat in her own courtroom in Brooklyn while families shouted and cried in airports nationwide.

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ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt announces to a crowd outside a Brooklyn courthouse that a federal judge had stayed deportations nationwide of those detained on entry to the United States following an executive order from President Trump that targeted citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries. (ACLU Nationwide/Facebook)

President Trump’s sudden ban on refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries had interrupted reunions midflight, leaving aunts, nephews, fathers and daughters stranded on opposite sides of security cordons, while federal officials decided who would be deported by presidential decree.

That’s the night the daughter of Mary and Jack Donnelly — whose speeches and rulings had rarely traveled beyond courthouse walls — became known across the world as the first judge to block Trump’s order.

Never before in her long legal career had Donnelly gained such attention. Nowhere close.

Her old college roommate, Darcy Gibson Berglund, remembers the Ohio-raised English major starring in a campus rendition of “Pippin” in the late 1970s but then quickly leaving the stage for the law.

“She’s an intellectual, she was not going to pursue theater,” Berglund said. But she said her friend retained “a facility with language” after graduating from law school in 1984.

Donnelly spent the next quarter-century as a New York prosecutor. Her most famous case was against two executives who looted their company — a trial that the New York Times described as “six months of sometimes tedious testimony.”

The paper recounted Donnelly’s closing arguments in the Tyco International case, when she “at times seemed like a schoolteacher lecturing her students.”

The executives “believed they were above the law, and they believe the rules that apply to other people do not apply to them,” Donnelly told the jury in 2004.

The men were convicted. This week, some of Donnelly’s old colleagues praised her demeanor during that trial — one telling the Times she was “the calm center of the spinning wheel,” even then.

She made state judge a few years after her victory in the Tyco trial, in 2009, and for years handled mostly criminal trials.

Related: Trump official appears to walk back inclusion of green-card holders in travel ban

Donnelly would later tell senators that sentencing someone to prison “is one of the most difficult tasks a judge faces.” Some of her cases, however, were so horrific it didn’t seem hard.

“Not only did you strangle this woman, you then chopped her up,” she told a man in 2010, according to the New York Daily News, before sentencing him to 19 years to life for killing his ex-girlfriend and burying her in concrete.

If the killer were ever released, the paper noted, he would be deported because he had come to the United States illegally.

Several years later, a populist Republican would begin crafting campaign speeches around violent immigrants.

But first, Donnelly had to wait.

And wait, and wait, and wait after President Barack Obama nominated her to the federal court in November 2014, promising she would “serve the American people with integrity and an unwavering commitment to justice.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not hold hearings to approve her for months, a common theme in an era when White House and Congress stood divided.

Related: McConnell: We don’t have religious tests in this country

“I’m thrilled the committee is finally moving forward,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in May 2015. “I know Ann well.”

He spoke of her parents in Ohio, and her work prosecuting sex crimes. He told his colleagues of an office Donnelly had left long ago, where “her reputation is legendary.”

“She is at her core a kind, thoughtful, compassionate person,” Schumer said.

He asked her family to stand. “You’ll see, it’s a great sight.”

Donnelly’s mother and a dozen-some siblings, children, spouses, nieces and friends all rose in the chamber. One woman wiped tears from her eyes after Donnelly took the table at the front of the room.

The senators asked her only two questions, and only about criminal law.

“It’s a certain risk a judge takes,” Donnelly told Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), speaking of times she had tried to rehabilitate rather than punish a young offender, in hopes to “save someone from what is bound to be a life of crime.”

But mostly, Donnelly spoke of her family before ceding the table and waiting for the Senate’s decision.

Another half a year passed until the Senate confirmed her, nearly unanimously, with only two nays.

Related: Senate Democrats vow legislation to block Trump’s travel ban

Yet more months went by before Donnelly was sworn in, quoting Abraham Lincoln in Brooklyn, and speaking once again about her family.

She made no great news for a full year on the federal bench — until Saturday evening, when protesters thronged major U.S. airports and an executive with the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted directions to Donnelly’s courthouse.

“Go right now if you can,” he wrote.

It had by then been a full day since Trump signed an executive order he said would “keep radical Islamic terrorists” out of the country — but which turned out to instantly bar people who had spent weeks or years planning journeys to the United States, and in some cases were already here.

They had names like Labeeb Ali, who told The Washington Post he had sold his business and belongings in Iraq and obtained a U.S. visa before finding out at the airport that he couldn’t board his flight.

And Binto Adan, who The Post reported had flown thousands of miles with her 8- and 9-year-old children expecting to see her husband but who ended up being detained all day at Dulles International Airport because her family is Somali.

“I am looking for my parents! They are elderly!” a crying woman shouted in the same airport that night. And in cities from Dallas to Seattle, bewildered families sought missing members, and the ACLU’s emergency request to stop the deportations found its way to Donnelly’s courtroom in New York.

She had once been a government lawyer, but that night, she showed little patience for their arguments, The Post reported.

“Our own government presumably approved their entry to the country,” Donnelly said, weighing the risks of sending unknown numbers of people back across the oceans.

An ACLU lawyer interrupted the hearing to warn Donnelly that a flier was about to be deported to war-torn Syria unless she acted immediately.

Donnelly asked whether the government could guarantee that person’s safety and, unconvinced by the answer, issued her order just before 9 p.m.

Sending travelers back could cause “irreparable harm,” she ruled. She’d turned more eloquent phrases, but this time her written words were photographed and immediately shared across the world.

“Stay is granted,” the executive director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project wrote on Twitter.

“Stay is national.”

By early Sunday morning, tearful and exhausted people were emerging from security areas across the United States. They had no guarantee for their future in the United States, but they had a reprieve from immediate deportation.

And as families filtered out into the cities, the name of a federal judge they’d never heard of was in headlines across the globe.

An earlier version of this post referred incorrectly to the “federal circuit.” Donnelly is a federal judge for the Eastern District of New York.

Karen Sultan was among scores who came to the Rally for Immigrants held at Reagan National Airport. She brought flowers to give to anyone who might need them. Shes from Chevy Chase, Md. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Amy Greene of Arlington, Va., showed her support for immigrant rights with her 8-year-old son Tadesse Greene. She was among scores of folks who turned out for the Rally for Immigrants event. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Scores show up for the Rally for Immigrants at Reagan National Airport. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Karen Sultan looks up to supporters who cheer on an upper level at Reagan National Airport. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Demonstrators gather at the Capitol to demand that President Trump withdraw the executive order banning people traveling to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), speaks against the executive order at the Capitol. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) outside the Capitol. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), center, speaks to the crowd in front of the Capitol. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), left, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at the protest. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
JoAnne Kosta of Fairfax, Va., kisses Hythan Bakir of Falls Church, Va., as people arrive from an international flight at Washington Dulles International Airport. They were there to offer their assistance in Arabic translation. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Hala Alhogbani, left, is embraced by her mother-in-law, Jules Alhogbani, after Hala arrived with her daughter from Saudi Arabia at Dulles Airport. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) addresses the media at Dulles Airport. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Amy Dahm of Great Falls, Va., waves an American flag as people arrive from an international flight at Dulles Airport. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Protesters rally outside the White House to criticize President Trumps immigration ban on citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
A large crowd of protesters gathers near the White House. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Protesters rally near the White House. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
People gather outside the White House to protest Trumps executive order on immigration. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
Demonstrators gather near the White House. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Protesters gather outside the White House. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)
Activists display their signs outside the White House. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
Demonstrators gather near the White House. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Demonstrators gather near the White House. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
A man holds an American flag near the White House. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
A girl holds her sign above the crowd near the White House. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
Demonstrators gather near the White House. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
Demonstrators gather near the White House. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
An activist holds a sign along the fenced-off area outside the White House. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
Many of the protesters in front of the White House moved to the entrance of the Trump International Hotel. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
A woman protests outside the Trump International Hotel. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
Protesters rally at the Trump International Hotel. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Demonstrators gather outside the Trump International Hotel. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
Protesters gather at the Trump International Hotel. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Demonstrators gather outside the Trump International Hotel. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
Demonstrators gather outside the Trump International Hotel. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
Micah McCoy, 6, was brought to the protest outside the Trump International Hotel by his mother. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
People protest and welcome arriving passengers at Dulles International Airport. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Demonstrators amass at Dulles Airport. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Protesters welcome arriving passengers at Dulles Airport. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
A woman offers pizza to people protesting the immigration ban. (Yeganeh Torbati/Reuters)
People welcome arriving passengers at Dulles Airport. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: How people reacted to Trump’s immigration ban

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Trump promised disruption. That’s exactly what he’s delivering.

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Avi Selk is an American-Canadian nomad. He reported for the Dallas Morning News from 2009 until December 2016, when he joined the general assignment desk.

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