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State's Highest Court Reverses Itself, Reinstating Pay For Mass. Judge Accused Of Helping Immigrant Evade ICE Arrest

District Court Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph departs federal court in Boston after facing obstruction of justice charges for allegedly helping a man in the country illegally evade immigration officials as he left her Newton courthouse after a hearing in 2018. (Steven Senne/AP)
District Court Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph departs federal court in Boston after facing obstruction of justice charges for allegedly helping a man in the country illegally evade immigration officials as he left her Newton courthouse after a hearing in 2018. (Steven Senne/AP)

A suspended Newton district court judge accused of helping an undocumented immigrant evade arrest at a courthouse will now be paid after a decision issued Tuesday by the state's Supreme Judicial Court. The ruling essentially reverses the SJC's original order issued the same day as the judge's indictment.

It is unclear whether Joseph's $181,000 salary is guaranteed for the duration of her trial, as the court order leaves further notice up to the discretion of the SJC.

Judge Shelley Joseph was charged by federal prosecutors with obstruction of justice on April 25. Later that day, the SJC announced Joseph was suspended without pay from her position on the bench.

"This order is based solely on the fact that a sitting judge has been indicted for alleged misconduct in the performance of her judicial duties. It in no way reflects any opinion on the merits of the pending criminal case," the court wrote in April.

Joseph challenged the ruling, citing an undue financial burden. She requested that she be paid during her suspension and assigned to administrative duties.

In the new order issued Tuesday, Chief Justice Ralph Gants acknowledged the challenge presented to the SJC in considering the weight of Joseph's federal indictment, which, of course, remains to be adjudicated.

"Even if the court were confident that the evidence supported a finding of probable cause, that finding alone would not suffice to justify a disciplinary sanction for the alleged misconduct," wrote Gants.

"The indictment alone," he continued, "would not be sufficient to justify a disciplinary sanction against a judge."

Gants also addressed the fact that Joseph remains a judge even while suspended and is therefore strictly limited in terms of other eligible means of earning income.

Joseph's attorney, Michael Keating, said the ruling helps Joseph personally, but it's also important for other judges.

"On the whole issue of judicial independence and the ability of judges to be able to do what they do without fear of losing their salary, even in the face of a federal indictment, we thought was a very important principal," he said.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who appointed Joseph to the bench in 2017, had previously called for her to be removed, and supported the decision to suspend her without pay.

"Governor Baker believes Judge Joseph should not hear cases until the federal case is resolved and believes that no one should obstruct federal law enforcement officials trying to do their jobs," said Lizzy Guyton, the governor's communications director.  "The Baker-Polito Administration has filed and continues to support legislation to allow court officials as well as law-enforcement to work with federal immigration officials to detain dangerous individuals."​

Justice Gants said the length of an unpaid suspension in this case could last months or years and ultimately end in a decision that finds no wrongdoing on behalf of Joseph.

"I recognize that this means that an indicted judge will be paid from public funds but will not be able to earn that salary through the performance of judicial or other duties," Gants writes. "I also recognize that, in the eyes of the general public, this is not a productive use of public funds. I agree, but I think it is the best of the bad alternatives under these circumstances."

Joseph's request for a reassignment to administrative duties during her suspension was denied by the SJC. She will receive retroactive pay owed to her since the day of her suspension in April.

Joseph, along with retired court officer Wesley MacGregor, are accused of helping a man previously identified as Jose Medina Perez slip out a back door of the Newton District Court, where an immigration officer was waiting to arrest him.

Joseph previously rejected a plea deal from the government, according to filings in Boston federal court. MacGregor has not yet responded to the government's offer.

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Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is a reporter representing WBUR on a team of public radio station journalists in the New England News Collaborative.

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