Mock Trial

Miamiís immigration judges are not interested in your problems

The brief continues that after accepting the anonymous letter into evidence, the judge refused to accept a letter that the immigrant said was from his physician in Venezuela, which attested to the medical injuries suffered in a beating related to the asylum claim.

"The judge noted that he had issues with the stationery on the letter, which appeared to be a copy of stationery used by the doctor, despite the fact that the letter contained the physician's original signature and stamp authenticating the signature," the brief continued. "The doctor was never contacted by DHS counsel or the judge — there was no evidence presented that the letter was fraudulent. The letter very well could have been a copy of letterhead the doctor used because of available resources in Venezuela." The brief criticizes the judge for placing himself in the position of "forensic document expert," and concludes that "The medical letter was the applicant's best documentary evidence of his beating in Venezuela."

On the EOIR Website's home page, disciplinary actions against errant attorneys are prominently listed as links, a reasonable measure of consumer protection. Attorneys are disciplined for everything from charging excessive fees to coercion to "engaging in contumelious or obnoxious conduct." Disciplinary action against judges, however, can be accessed only under Freedom of Information Act requests.

Illustrations by Todd Julie
Illustrations by Todd Julie

According to Barbara Kamali, most judges are fair and respectful to immigrants. But she, Tammy Fox-Isicoff, and other local attorneys repeatedly cited the need for a way to express concerns. "We need a responsive complaint process, where a complaint against an immigration judge is really investigated," wrote Fox-Isicoff in an e-mail to New Times. An EOIR spokeswoman said the official procedure for complaining is to write letters — either to the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility or to the chief immigration judge. Doing so has its hazards.

The law office of immigration attorneys Neil Kolner and Michael Ray is nestled in a bi-level storefront two blocks from the immigration courthouse. Passing through an entryway lined with law books, a secretary leads visitors up a lightless stairwell whose walls are hung with pictures of manatees, alligators, and sea otters. The dingy hallway opens into a shockingly pretty, if slightly unkempt, patio garden full of sprawling tropical plants, which passes into the attorneys' shared upstairs office. The whole setup is sort of ramshackle, with a poster of John Lennon giving the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty and another of an old Mad magazine satire of the U.S. Supreme Court. Kolner and Ray are also the most notorious local examples of what happens when attorneys criticize a judge too harshly.

The trouble began as far back as 1994, when an ongoing feud in the Daily Business Review pitted Ray and Kolner against former Miami Judge Philip Montante, whom they accused of universally denying asylum to Haitians. Responding in the newspaper, Montante's lawyer labeled Ray and Kolner as "chronic troublemakers" and countered that the judge "had granted asylum to numerous Haitians."

Annoyed, Ray and Kolner sued the government for records indicating the number of Haitians granted asylum by Montante (who now judges in Buffalo, New York). The answer: one. ("In an ongoing feud between Miami immigration lawyers and immigration judge Philip J. Montante, score one for the lawyers," quipped the DBR.)

In February 1996, Ray wrote a sharply worded letter to Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy, complaining again about Judge Montante. It wasn't the first time Ray filed a formal complaint about a judge — in fact he had written four previous letters about Montante and three other judges — but in his February letter, he laid out a "History & Background of Miami Immigration Court/Ray/Kolner Conflict."

By November 1996, this "conflict" had escalated to the level where Ray and Kolner asked Judge Montante to recuse himself from their cases. The judge refused. Ray went before him first.

"Normally they call a case by the order in which you arrive," he remembers. "But he wouldn't call me. I kept waiting." Ray and Kolner watched as the judge called case after case before theirs. "Finally I got up and asked to go next," says Ray. The ensuing confrontation was so tumultuous that the judge had security forcibly remove Ray and Kolner from the courtroom.

This encounter prompted Michael Ray's most inflammatory letter yet: "Montante's trial conduct towards Kolner and me (and who knows how many other attorneys afraid to speak up?) is just one more discouraging example of judicial railroads, kangaroo courts, lynchings, Inquisitions, Salem Witch Trials, Star Chambers, and Nazi Justice rearing up their heads like a plague in humankind's struggle upward through history. I make this unpalatable charge simply because you, not I, have the obligation and lawful authority to exercise that obligation to put a stop to Montante's abuses."

In 2001, five years and many legal stages later, the Florida Supreme Court publicly scolded Ray for questioning Montante's integrity. A referee representing the Florida Bar said of Ray's letter: "I am utterly appalled that this kind of language would be used against anybody on evidence that barely qualifies as sketchy."

The Florida Supreme Court's unanimous nine-page opinion read, "Although attorneys play an important role in exposing valid problems within the judicial system, statements impugning the integrity of a judge, when made with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity, erode public confidence in the judicial system without assisting to publicize problems that legitimately deserve attention."

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