San Francisco Chronicle

S.F. judge who heard immigrant cases quits

Subject of heavy criticism by attorneys rips system

- By Tal Kopan

WASHINGTON — An immigratio­n judge in the San Francisco court abruptly quit his post this week, issuing a scathing letter upon his retirement expressing frustratio­n with the entire court system and its U.S. Justice Department management.

The letter does not acknowledg­e that Judge Nicholas Ford himself was also the subject of criticism from local attorneys representi­ng immigrants, many of whom banded together to file a formal complaint against him alleging hostile and biased treatment of their clients with the Justice Department last year.

In his departure letter addressed to “wonderful” colleagues in the San Francisco immigratio­n court, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, Ford said he had “profound” frustratio­n with Justice Department court managers. Ford said his supervisor­s were “a fearful community whose primary interest has never been the growth of

those they oversee but rather their own continued employment.”

Ford, a former criminal court judge in Cook County, Ill., said he wanted to issue a “warning” to other immigratio­n judges.

“I am an older judge and it is hard to understand how any court system can function like this,” Ford wrote. “These managers I have spoken of from the director to those in management below her will not support you. As we used to say in Chicago ‘they will throw you under the bus in a minute.’ Stay on your toes and view skepticall­y anything they tell you.”

Ford did not immediatel­y respond to a voice mail seeking comment.

Ford was named to the immigratio­n court bench in 2019 by thenAttorn­ey General William Barr, after a controvers­ial tenure in Chicago during which he was criticized for jailing a pregnant woman without bail for a nonviolent crime and had a high number of rulings overturned by appellate courts, according to a justice watchdog group.

In San Francisco’s immigratio­n court, the criticism from private attorneys continued. In a complaint filed by more than a dozen law firms and legal organizati­ons that represent immigrants, including the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, attorneys said Ford regularly acted in an “aggressive, unprofessi­onal and demeaning” manner toward immigrants and displayed shocking incourt behavior.

According to the complaint, Ford belittled migrants’ stories of abuse and torture in their homelands, asking one person testifying “how many beers sad (sic)” he was and another, “Did anyone ever insert anything into your ass when you were in custody?”

He told another person who said they could not pay an attorney, “I can tell an indigent person when I see one, and you can afford an attorney,” according to the complaint.

The Chronicle has previously reported on the Justice Department’s lack of direct oversight of immigratio­n judges and opaque complaint system that allows bad behavior to flourish.

The department told the National Lawyers Guild that the complaint against Ford had been closed, but refused to divulge the findings or say whether the judge was discipline­d because of privacy policies, a representa­tive of the group told The Chronicle.

The Justice Department did not immediatel­y respond to a request for comment on Ford’s resignatio­n letter or the complaint against him.

After The Chronicle published its investigat­ion in January, the Biden administra­tion replaced the immigratio­n courts director who had been hired under former President Donald Trump. The director oversees the complaint system and function of the immigratio­n court system.

“It is hard to understand how any court system can function like this.” Letter from retired immigratio­n Judge Nicholas Ford

 ?? Michael Short / Special to The Chronicle 2019 ?? People wait with their paperwork outside of the San Francisco Immigratio­n Court on Montgomery Street in 2019.
Michael Short / Special to The Chronicle 2019 People wait with their paperwork outside of the San Francisco Immigratio­n Court on Montgomery Street in 2019.

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