Charlie Baker Defends Andrew Lelling Over Judge Indictment

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By Matt Murphy

Governor Charlie Baker on Monday defended U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling’s decision to prosecute a state judge for allegedly helping an illegal immigrant evade arrest, dismissing the idea that the indictment was politically motivated.

Lelling last week announced charges against District Court Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph, alleging that she and another court official obstructed justice by allowing a defendant to leave through a back door of a Newton courthouse to avoid Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

The indictment sparked a backlash from several prominent Democrats, including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who called it “a radical and politically-motivated attack on our state and the independence of our courts.” Healey suggested the matter should have been handled by the Commission on Judicial Conduct and the Trial Court.

Baker, a Republican, disagreed with that assessment when asked Monday, but said the case highlights the need for the Legislature to consider how local and state law enforcement handle immigration detainer requests from the federal government.

“I don’t think it was politically motivated,” Baker said. “I think there’s a big debate and a big discussion here about the role of state government and the role of local government and the role of federal government and how we handle these issues associated with detainers. I don’t think it was political.”

Baker said he had not spoken to Healey about her comments, and did not know if she was condoning the alleged actions of the judge, but said it’s commonplace for the decisions of prosecutors to be second guessed.

Lelling was nominated by President Donald Trump to become the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts in late 2017, promoted from within the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston after working as a federal prosecutor in Virginia and in the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division.

“I don’t think this is about immigration,” Baker said. “I think this issue is about a question that has to do with law, and the best place to decide or answer a question like that is the courts.”

Baker in 2017 nominated Joseph to the District Court, but following initial reports about the incident at the center of the indictment the governor called for an investigation and for her to be barred from handling cases until that was complete.

On Monday, Baker said this situation is the exact reason he filed legislation last year to allow law enforcement, under certain circumstances, to detain arrestees at the request of federal immigration officers.

The governor’s bill was a response to a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that determined that detaining someone solely at the request of ICE constituted an unlawful arrest under Massachusetts law. In seeking to put into law criteria for honoring an ICE detention request, Baker proposed to allow state and local law enforcement to hold someone already in custody at the request of ICE for up to 12 hours if they have a serious prior criminal record.

“The fact that it’s sort of drifted here into the courthouses is a function of the fact that we don’t have a detainer policy here in Massachusetts, statutorily. I think we should,” Baker said.

Asked if he had a problem with ICE agents patrolling courthouses looking for undocumented defendants, Baker said, “ICE has a job to do and their job is to hopefully deal with very dangerous people who are here in this country illegally and to work collaboratively with their colleagues in state and local government and law enforcement to ensure that those folks are identified and dealt with appropriately.”

Critics of the Trump’s administration’s immigration enforcement tactics have argued that local police do not have the resources to enforce federal immigration law, and could risk alienating immigrant communities who might fear cooperating with local police to reduce neighborhood crime.

After meeting with Baker and Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) on Monday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) noted that immigration policy proposals, including ones dealing with detainers, must be vetted through the committee process. He said he could not predict whether the House would take up immigration reform this session, citing the inability of Democrats last session to agree on a path forward.

“People were just all over the place. I could not find any consensus on any one particular item for us to go forward. Now having said that, this year, in terms of what has happened, that may be a little different,” DeLeo said.

Spilka similarly said it was too early to say whether the Senate would consider an immigration bill this session, but indicated that she did have a problem with Lelling’s decision to charge Joseph.

“I don’t know what was in his thought, whether it was politically motivated or not, but I do believe that it was somewhat unprecedented overreach,” Spilka said.

Both Baker and Spilka, when asked, said they had not reviewed the lawsuit filed by District Attorneys Marian Ryan and Rachael Rollins, with public defenders and community groups Monday, aimed at making illegal for ICE agents to arrest people while they are coming to, attending, or returning from court.