Federal Judge Catches DOJ Lying, Sanctions Lawyers With Mandatory Ethics Classes

from the a-small-fix-that-indicates-a-larger-problem dept

The DOJ likes to sling lawsuits and injunctions towards law enforcement agencies with histories of misconduct and deception, but it's apparently less interested in ensuring its own behavior is above reproach.

A lawsuit filed by a handful of states in opposition to the administration's new (and controversial) immigration policies have made their way through a number of courts, with one headed to the top court in the land. Meanwhile, down in Texas, a federal judge has uncovered DOJ lawyers have been engaged in a pattern of deception since the inception of the litigation. While the Supreme Court will be tackling the question of whether the administration has to play by its own rules, Judge Andrew Hanen is spending his time reprimanding the government's lawyers for their misdeeds. (via Jonathan Turley)

What remains before this Court is the question of whether the Government’s lawyers must play by the rules. In other words, the propriety of the Defendants’ actions now lies with the Supreme Court, but the question of how to deal with the conduct, or misconduct, of their counsel rests with this Court. To that end, this Court neither takes joy nor finds satisfaction in the issuance of this Order. To the contrary, this Court is disappointed that it has to address the subject of lawyer behavior when it has many more pressing matters on its docket. It is, at best, a distraction, and there is nothing “best” about the conduct in this case. The United States Department of Justice (“DOJ” or “Justice Department”) has now admitted making statements that clearly did not match the facts. It has admitted that the lawyers who made these statements had knowledge of the truth when they made these misstatements. The DOJ’s only explanation has been that its lawyers either “lost focus” or that the “fact[s] receded in memory or awareness.”

These misrepresentations were made on multiple occasions starting with the very first hearing this Court held. This Court would be remiss if it left such unseemly and unprofessional conduct unaddressed.

The lies the DOJ told involve a 2014 DHS directive that changed its handling of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The DOJ told the court and opposing counsel that no action under the new guidelines would commence until February 2015. These statements were made both orally (January 15, 2015) and in a filing (December 19, 2014). But in reality, the guidelines were already being used to process immigrants, resulting in over 100,000 modified DACA applications being granted or renewed by the DHS prior to either of these statements.

This was caught by the court in April 2015, but the DOJ insisted its statements weren't lies, but rather the "innocent mistakes" of poorly-informed counsel, shifting the blame towards the DHS. Months later, the real truth has come out.

Now, however, having studied the Government’s filings in this case, its admissions make one conclusion indisputably clear: the Justice Department lawyers knew the true facts and misrepresented those facts to the citizens of the 26 Plaintiff States, their lawyers and this Court on multiple occasions.

[...]

In fact, the Justice Department knew that DHS was implementing the three-year renewal portion of the 2014 DHS Directive weeks before its attorneys told this Court for the very first time that no such action was being taken. Apparently, lawyers, somewhere in the halls of the Justice Department whose identities are unknown to this Court, decided unilaterally that the conduct of the DHS in granting three-year DACA renewals using the 2014 DHS Directive was immaterial and irrelevant to this lawsuit and that the DOJ could therefore just ignore it. [Doc. No. 242 at 17]. Then, for whatever reason, the Justice Department trial lawyers appearing in this Court chose not to tell the truth about this DHS activity. The first decision was certainly unsupportable, but the subsequent decision to hide it from the Court was unethical.

This isn't the DOJ lying about a minor procedural detail. This is the DOJ lying about the DACA modification central to the states' lawsuit against the US government. To purposely mislead the court and the defendants about the status of DACA applicants cannot be waved away with claims of foggy memories. It also cannot be waved away with claims that the DOJ had no idea so many applicants were already being processed using guidelines still being contested in federal court.

In its own defense, the Government has claimed it did not know before February 27, 2015, that the number of individuals that had been granted three-year deferrals between November 24, 2014, and the date of the injunction exceeded 100,000. It claims that it notified the Court very quickly after it realized that the number exceeded 100,000. This may be true, but knowing the exact number is beside the point. [...] Whether it was one person or one hundred thousand persons, the magnitude does not change a lawyer’s ethical obligations. The duties of a Government lawyer, and in fact of any lawyer, are threefold: (1) tell the truth; (2) do not mislead the Court; and (3) do not allow the Court to be misled. See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT r. 3.3 cmts. 2 & 3 (AM. BAR ASS’N 2013). The Government’s lawyers failed on all three fronts. [...] The failure of counsel to do that constituted more than mere inadvertent omissions—it was intentionally deceptive. There is no de minimis rule that applies to a lawyer’s ethical obligation to tell the truth.

The DOJ's lies made the court's temporary restraining order a joke.

The Court issued the temporary injunction on February 16, 2015. The timing of this ruling was clearly made based upon the representations that no action would be taken by Defendants until February 18, 2015. If Plaintiffs’ counsel had known that the Government was surreptitiously acting, the Plaintiff States could have, and would have according to their representations, sought a temporary restraining order pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65(b) much earlier in the process. [...] Due to the Government’s wrongful misstatements, the Plaintiff States never got that opportunity. The misrepresentations of the Government’s attorneys were material and directly caused the Plaintiff States to forgo a valuable legal right to seek more immediate relief.

Unfortunately, the court is limited to what it can do in response to the DOJ's misconduct. Holding the DOJ responsible for the involved states' legal fees would result in the participating states effectively paying their own legal fees. It would be nothing more than moving around money collected from taxpayers and, thanks to federal taxes, robbing plaintiffs to pay plaintiffs. Instead, Judge Hanen has ordered that any DOJ lawyer who has -- or will -- appear in the courts of the 26 states involved in the lawsuit attend legal ethics courses. The courses will be provided by a legal agency unaffiliated with the DOJ, and the DOJ itself will be required to provide annual reports to the court confirming these courses are being attended.

This may seem like a laughable conclusion to such widespread, persistent dishonesty, but with the case currently in front of the Supreme Court, Judge Hanen only has a few options at his disposal. Awarding fees would be even more of a joke and he's in no position to find in favor of the State of Texas, much less the other 25 plaintiffs. So, this will have to do. More importantly, this opinion is on the record, in writing, and will serve as documentation of the DOJ's willingness to bend/break rules to serve its own purposes.

Filed Under: doj, law enforcement, lying, sanctions


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  1. icon
    btr1701 (profile), 28 May 2016 @ 2:40pm

    Limited

    > Unfortunately, the court is limited to what it can do in response to
    > the DOJ's misconduct.

    Not as limited as you imply. The court could hold the lawyers in contempt, make them serve some time in jail and fine them personally for their dishonesty, and it could refer them all to their various bar associations for disciplinary action, to include disbarment.

    The fact that court chose to do none of this in favor of some in-service ethics classes, which the attendees will spending either sleeping through or playing on their smart-phones, indicates the court didn't actually find outright lying by the government to be very troubling at all.

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