Judge Sanctions Obama Lawyers for Ethical Violations, Wishes He Could Disbar Them

While everyone was debating Trump’s judicial-nominations list yesterday, the judge in Brownsville, Texas, who still maintains control of certain technical aspects of the immigration-executive-action case now before the Supreme Court issued an extraordinary order sanctioning the Justice Department for various misrepresentations and other ethical breaches. It turns out that the government had begun implementing DAPA and extended DACA – the program providing temporary eligibility for residence and other benefits to large classes of illegal aliens – before the February 2015 date when those programs were intended to become active.

Judge Andrew Hanen had worked to produce a 123-page opinion enjoining the executive action on the eve of that “go” date, and it turns out that the Justice Department violated its duty of candor by not revealing the extent of its malfeasance – and continuing with the program in certain ways for a few weeks after the order went into effect. That is, regardless whether the government purposely defied the judge or this was a case of the left hand not knowing what the far-left hand was doing, administration lawyers had a duty to disclose everything that was going on, and to make best efforts to stop the Department of Homeland Security from putting its new programs into effect.

But they didn’t do that, so Judge Hanen issued a truly remarkable sanctions order that not only details DOJ’s “bad faith” but incorporates movie dialogue to illustrate points about the the government’s not being above the law and the importance of truth-telling. As Josh Blackman says in an excellent summary:

This egregious conduct violates the most basic tenets of judicial ethics, which demand an ongoing duty of candor to the courts. What is the government’s defense? The Justice Department rationalized that its lawyers “lost focus on the fact” or that somehow “the fact receded in memory or awareness.” In one of the more light-hearted parts of the otherwise sober opinion, Judge Hanen quoted from the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street. When young Tommy Mara was asked to testify about Kris Kringle’s secret identity, he was asked, “Tommy, you know the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie, don’t you?” The boy answered, “Gosh, everybody knows you shouldn’t tell a lie, especially in court.” The Justice Department lawyers deserved coal in their stockings.

These accusations aren’t even the most audacious aspect of the court’s 28-page order. In a decision that will be studied in legal-ethics classes for decades to come, Judge Hanen placed many of the lawyers at the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. — known as “Main Justice” — under his personal supervision. This relief is reminiscent of federal courts that placed recalcitrant school districts under supervision to ensure compliance with desegregation orders. Or more recently, this relief is akin to judges who placed deficient police departments under federal oversight to ensure they reduce police brutality or other offenses. What is remarkable here is that Main Justice will now be required to report to Judge Hanen’s authority for the next five years to improve its ethics.

Indeed, Hanen’s remedy consists of five component: (1) all the lawyers at DOJ headquarters who litigate in the 26 states that challenged DAPA (most of them) have to go back to school for an annual ethics course taught by an outside expert; (2) DOJ has to certify annually for five years that these lawyers are indeed going to school; (3) the attorney general must report within 60 days “a comprehensive plan to prevent this unethical conduct from ever occurring again,” and “what steps she is taking to ensure that . . . the Justice Department trial lawyers tell the truth — the entire truth.”; (4) the attorney general is also required to report in 60 days “what steps she is taking to ensure that the Office of Professional Responsibility … appropriately disciplines those whose actions fall below the standards that the American people rightfully expect from their Department of Justice.”; and (5) the government must “file a list of each of the individuals in each of the Plaintiff States given benefits” under the enjoined programs, including their names, addresses, and other personally identifying information. These records would remain sealed, but the states would be able to access them on a “showing by a state of actual or imminent damage that could be minimized or prevented by release of the information to one of the Plaintiff States.” (Josh is dubious about the purpose and propriety of this last item, but it would seem to me that it would facilitate, should the plaintiff states ultimately prevail in their legal challenge, the state revocation of driver’s licenses and other benefits from those who wouldn’t have gotten them had not the government acted so egregiously.)

I can’t overstate how unusual such a sanctions order is. Judge Hanen even said that in a normal case, he’d simply strike the guilty party’s pleadings – meaning the government’s entire defense, handing a summary win to the challengers – but he couldn’t do that here because such a move would imperil the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over a case of national import. He also said that he’d disbar the attorneys responsible if he had that power, but instead simply revoked the out-of-state lawyers’ ability to practice in his court pro hac vice (for this case).

Amazing. I’m sure that much if not all of this will be affirmed on appeal.