LOS ANGELES, Calif. - An immigration judge has sued the U.S. Justice Department, alleging that an order recusing her from hearing the cases of Iranian immigrants because of her involvement in the Iranian-American community is discriminatory.
Immigration Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor in Los Angeles filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court, claiming she was targeted in the 2012 recusal order after she attended the Roundtable with Iranian-American Community Leaders organized by the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Other immigration judges who were active in their religious and ethnic communities had not been subject to a blanket recusal order when Tabaddor, who was born in Iran and participated in dozens of public speaking engagements, was recused, the lawsuit said.
"Unless the agency is prevented from having unbridled power to issue recusal orders against immigration judges, based on their race, national origin, religion or perceived interests, the effect is that immigration judges will be improperly manipulated and intimidated by Justice Department officials, and their decisional independence will be severely threatened," the suit said.
Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration courts, declined to comment on pending litigation or personnel matters. A message left at the Justice Department was not immediately returned.
Tabaddor, a former federal prosecutor, wants the order reversed and to be assigned cases randomly, as is done with other immigration judges. Since the order was issued, she has recused herself from eight cases. Officials did not accuse Tabaddor of bias but issued the order to avoid an appearance of impropriety, the lawsuit said.
Later in 2012, the office sought to recuse an Armenian-American immigration judge from cases involving Armenians if she attended a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, the lawsuit said.
"The whole theory of judges is to be blind," said Ali Mojdehi, Tabaddor's lawyer. "You are supposed to be calling balls and strikes without being partial toward who is in front of you, and this sort of order upends that notion that our system is based on."
Immigration judges are encouraged to engage in civic life and the recusal order violates their right to participate in speaking and educational activities on their own time, the National Association of Immigration Judges said in a statement.
While the government once sought to appoint judges who reflected the country's racial and ethnic diversity, the order deters those same judges from participating in their communities, the association said.
Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks, the association's president, said she is not aware of orders affecting other judges but was concerned the practice could spread.
"We believe it is ill-advised, if not outright illegal," she said.
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