WASHINGTON — Over the last two years, U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales has appointed more than two dozen individuals as federal immigration judges.
The new jurists include a former treasurer of the Louisiana Republican Party, who was a legal advisor to the Bush Florida recount team after the 2000 presidential election. There is also a former GOP congressional aide who had tracked voter fraud issues for the Justice Department, and a Texan appointed by then-Gov. George W. Bush to a seat on the state library commission.
One thing missing on many of their resumes: a background in immigration law.
These lawyers are among a growing number of the nation's more than 200 immigration judges who have little or no experience in the law they were appointed to enforce.
The admission by former Justice Department official Monica M. Goodling this week that federal immigration judges were screened for their political credentials and loyalty to the Republican Party in possible violation of civil service laws is drawing new attention to the usually low-profile immigration bench.
The selection process that Goodling described also appeared at odds with Gonzales' own stated efforts to reform the trouble-plagued immigration-law system by bringing in experts and establishing tougher performance standards for judges.
Goodling testified that as a senior counsel to Gonzales in 2005 and 2006, she considered factors such as party affiliation and political donations when screening immigration judge applicants.
She said she did not remember in how many cases she applied such a test.
Of the 226 immigration judges around the country, 75 have been appointed during the Bush administration -- 26 of them during Gonzales' tenure. The judges handled more than 300,000 cases last year, including deportation and asylum proceedings.
Immigration lawyers and judges said Goodling's revelation explained what they perceived as a growing politicization of the immigration bench in recent years.
"In the last few years, we have seen the appointment of a good number of immigration judges with no background whatsoever in immigration ... which really makes you wonder how it is they are being appointed to those positions," said Crystal Williams, deputy director of programs at the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. in Washington.
In light of Goodling's testimony, Williams said, "I think we might have an answer."
Gonzales' appointment last year of an immigration judge in Arizona, Bruce A. Taylor, was one that turned heads. Taylor is considered an expert -- not in immigration law but in prosecuting adult-obscenity cases. Such cases are important to social conservatives, who form an important base of support for the Republican Party.
His former colleagues adamantly defend the selection.
"He is far more qualified than most attorneys appointed to the federal bench. He is certainly capable of mastering immigration law," said Patrick Trueman, a former Justice Department obscenity prosecutor. "Federal judges handle a wide variety of issues they did not handle in their law practice. What is important is good legal judgment and experience."
The Justice Department defended the new judges as well.
"The department values temperament, analytical ability and relevant experience in the selection of immigration judges, and believes that outstanding immigration judges can come from diverse legal backgrounds," spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson said Friday. "The department considers all applicants based on the totality of their professional records and backgrounds. Immigration judges appointed during this administration were well-qualified for their current positions."
The hiring and firing of immigration judges are covered by federal civil service laws, which prohibit discrimination based on political association.
The Justice Department has launched a widening internal review to see whether laws were broken in the hiring of the immigration judges as well as career prosecutors.
Goodling testified that she was told by another Justice official that because the judges are appointed by the attorney general, she could include political factors. Responding to her testimony, a Justice Department spokesman said Thursday that the department had never taken that view.
Considering political affiliation in filling civil service positions is a violation of the Hatch Act, which is designed to keep party politics separate from the day-to-day operations of the federal government. Such a violation could result in the firing of any employees involved in the illegal screening, and could trigger discrimination litigation by applicants who were declined positions.
Some lawmakers think standards for evaluating candidates have become too lax. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has proposed requiring that prospective immigration judges have at least five years of experience in immigration law before being considered for the bench.
Gonzales last year chastised immigration judges for "intemperate or even abusive" conduct toward people seeking asylum in the United States.
As part of a comprehensive review of U.S. immigration courts, he is ordering that judges be tested about their knowledge of the law and undergo periodic performance reviews.
Some immigration judges said the recent hiring of politically connected judges undermined his goal of improving the quality of the bench and its decision making.
"The irony of it is ... he has put a larger number of people with no immigration backgrounds in as judges who would not be subject to the new requirements," said Denise Slavin, an immigration judge in Miami since 1995 and president of the National Assn. of Immigration Judges.
"This highlights the concern we have about the public perception of judicial independence and integrity in the immigration courts' system."