Posted on Mon, Sep. 25, 2006
Respect sought for busy judges
Judge Denise Slavin is trying to improve the image of immigration judges as president of their union.
BY ALFONSO CHARDY
Denise Slavin is the proud mom of a 12-year-old daughter, owner of a trained 2-year-old schnauzer named Sandy and leader of a Girl Scout troop in her Broward County community.
But Slavin, 50, is also an immigration judge — perhaps one of the most powerful in the country — with a storied past as investigator of child abuse and discrimination, hunter of Nazi-era war criminals and trial attorney for the old U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
As president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, which recently signed its first collective bargaining agreement with the Justice Department, Slavin is trying to improve the lot and image of the nation's immigration judges — overworked, understaffed and often dismissed as anti-immigrant and unprofessional.
Empowered to speak for the union's 218 members, Slavin — in rare interviews this month — set out to dispel public perceptions that immigration judges are nothing but rubber stamps for the Department of Homeland Security or the Justice Department.
''We are certainly far from both of those,'' she said. “Since the immigration court was pulled out of the [immigration service] system back in the late '70s, the idea was to make sure it was much more than a rubber stamp, that it was an independent adjudication, that there were elements of fairness and due process.''
Immigration judges should command the same respect as other federal judges, Slavin says. They must decide cases based on immigration law — not on what Homeland Security says, though the Attorney General and federal appeals courts can reverse an immigration judge's rulings.
Slavin comes from a law and order background — the ring tone on her cellphone is the Law & Order TV show theme — but she notes that her interest is ensuring that victims of persecution are protected and that her decisions are fair.
A recent survey of immigration judges showed Slavin as generally balanced in her rulings. She has granted asylum in the majority of the 1,406 cases she ruled on from 2000 to early 2005 at the Miami immigration court.
Some of Miami's most prominent immigration attorneys, often quick to criticize judges' decisions, praise Slavin.
Ira Kurzban, considered a national authority on immigration law, said Slavin is “bright, fair, impartial and treats all parties with respect.''
Andr Pierre, who has had his share of motion denials before Slavin, spoke highly of her: “I find her to be one of the most competent immigration judges before whom I have ever appeared.''
Immigration judges are administrative and work for a unit of the Justice Department known as the Executive Office for Immigration Review. They decide cases referred by Homeland Security, which in 2003 took over the functions of the nowdefunct INS.
One of two immigration judges at the Krome detention center in West Miami-Dade, Slavin has headed the union since last year and will serve until June 2007.
Among issues that trouble immigration judges are huge caseloads — on average about 1,000 pending cases apiece at any given time — and little money in the federal budget to hire more judges and clerks.
Slavin also expressed concern about some measures her boss, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, announced recently to reform immigration courts. One measure, she said, that upset immigration judges is a plan for periodic performance evaluations.
''Many of the measures are welcome,'' said Slavin, who praised plans for increased staffing and a new recording system to replace aging and unreliable tape recorders.
''The major unwelcome thing is this periodic performance review,'' said Slavin, adding it could lead to a public perception that there are “quotas.''
She offered this analogy: “Everybody's had the experience where you got pulled over by a traffic cop and you thought that they're just trying to get their quota, their number of tickets, and that's why you got a speeding ticket that month.
“Well, you don't want anybody to think they got a deportation order for that reason, that the judge had a certain number of orders they had to get out.''
Larry Levine, a spokesman for the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which operates immigration courts, said periodic evaluations are not meant to curb a judge's independence.
He said reviews will identify “areas where an immigration judge or Board [of Immigration Appeals] member may need improvement — while fully respecting his or her role as an adjudicator.''
Levine said Justice has plans to pump up the budget in fiscal 2008 to help immigration courts run more smoothly and reduce judges' caseloads.
Slavin also took issue with steps taken by Gonzales' predecessor, John Ashcroft, to streamline immigration courts. Ashcroft trimmed the number of judges on the Board of Immigration Appeals and empowered it to issue one-line rulings usually endorsing an immigration judge's deportation order.
That strategy significantly reduced the backlog of pending cases, but critics say it forced lawyers to take more cases to federal appeals courts where the number of immigration appeals has grown dramatically.
Slavin said the so-called Affirmances Without Opinion, or AWOs, “were overused.''
Levine said the attorney general has found the rule allowing AWOs is fundamentally sound, but he has begun to ''examine'' the practice and will make ''appropriate changes'' if necessary.
At Krome, where Slavin is now based, she and Judge Kenneth Hurewitz handle about 10 initial hearings every morning and between two and four individual hearings every afternoon.
BORN IN WASHINGTON
Born Denise Noonan in Washington, Slavin — the eldest of five children — grew up in the Baltimore suburbs. Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were teachers, and her father worked at the National Security Agency.
After college, Slavin became a social worker, investigating child abuse and neglect cases before attending the University of Maryland's law school.
She met and married a fellow student, Michael Slavin, now an accountant and bank auditor who heads the fraud department at a Broward credit union.
In 1982, she became an investigator for the Maryland Commission on Human Relations. One discrimination complaint involved a black woman who claimed bartenders at a Baltimore bar charged black women for drinks but served them for free to white women.
Slavin went to the bar and ordered a beer. ''I could not force them to let me pay,'' she recalled. Then a black investigator walked in and was charged for her drink.
''It was a great learning experience,'' Slavin said.
In 1986, when Congress approved amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants, Slavin became an INS trial attorney. Nine years later, Slavin was working at the Justice Department, tracking down Nazi-era war criminals to strip them of citizenship and deport them.
One of the most famous cases Slavin worked on was that of John Demjanjuk. In December, the 85-year-old former auto worker, who was found to have served as a guard at Nazi death camps, was ordered deported. He had been accused and then cleared of being the notorious concentration camp guard Ivan the Terrible.
In 1995, Slavin returned to immigration — as a judge in Miami, and in April she replaced veteran Krome Judge Neale Foster, who died in June at age 81.
Slavin says she is neither pro-immigrant nor pro-government in her decisions. Her goal, Slavin said, is that she — and by extension all immigration judges — be trusted as fair.
''I'm very proud to be a member of this corps of people, people who are pretty much experts in their field,'' she said.