Justice Department takes immigration spat with federal judge to a higher court

The Justice Department on Friday formally asked a federal appeals court to vacate harsh sanctions imposed upon it by a U.S. district court judge, arguing that the judge’s penalties in a contentious case over President Barack Obama’s immigration policy were “as extraordinary as they are wrong.”

Department lawyers made good on their promise to challenge Judge Andrew Hanen’s blistering critique of them with a higher legal authority, and they asserted to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that Hanen was incorrect when he accused them of misleading the court. The lawyers argued that what Hanen deemed intentional misrepresentations were the product of mere “misunderstanding,” and even if they had acted wrongly, Hanen far exceeded his authority in the sweeping remedy he ordered.

The dispute emanates from a bid by 26 states to block a 2014 directive from the Obama administration establishing a program to allow certain undocumented immigrants to stay and work in the country legally and expanding another one. That case, which Hanen oversaw initially, is now at the Supreme Court.

The feud between the federal judge in Texas and the Justice Department would not seem to have an impact on the broader immigration policy challenge, although it has important ramifications in its own right. Among Hanen’s orders were that any Justice Department lawyer seeking to appear in a courthouse in any of the 26 states suing over the immigration policy attend a three-hour legal ethics course taught by someone outside the department. The Justice Department argued that was beyond his authority, and that it could cost up to $1.5 million.

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At issue is whether Justice Department lawyers misled the court in their description of the action being taken on administration’s 2014 Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents and a related expansion of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – both of which allow certain illegal immigrants to stay and work in the United States.

By Hanen’s account, Justice Department lawyers repeatedly deceived the court by suggesting that the administration was not taking any action on the administration’s 2014 directive when it had actually granted three-year renewals of deferred action benefits to more than 100,000 people. The Justice Department acknowledges that such renewals were granted but asserts that they occurred under an expanded version of the 2012 deferred action program, which had been granting two-year renewals that were not the subject of any legal challenge.

Separately on Friday, a group of immigrants asked the federal appeals court to block a portion of Hanen’s order requiring department lawyers to turn over the personal information of the immigrants who received benefits from the deferred action program between Nov. 20, 2014, and March 3, 2015 – which he said encompassed the period in which the lawyers had falsely promised no benefits were being conferred.