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WASHINGTON-In signing their first collective bargaining agreement after seven years of negotiations, the union representing the nation’s more than 200 immigration judges will finally have a voice in their working conditions-conditions that have been “overwhelming” in key ways since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, according to their leader. The National Association of Immigration Judges, representing 218 judges in 53 cities and detention centers nationwide, signed its first agreement with the Department of Justice on Aug. 10, a day after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced in a meeting with the judges a series of reforms designed to address complaints about the performance of some judges and recent problems with their workload. The immigration judges organized and formed a union in 1979, said their president, Denise Noonan Slavin, an immigration judge at the Krome detention center west of Miami. “We really didn’t use any of the power behind that or the provisions of the law until about seven years ago,” Slavin said. “We affiliated with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers to get their assistance. We had a rocky road with the [U.S. Department of Justice].” At one point, she recalled, the department filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to have the union decertified, claiming that the judges were management, and thus not entitled to organize. “If we were management, there wouldn’t have been a problem because we would have been able to change what we didn’t like,” she said. “That process took some time.” The biggest benefit of the new agreement is that it gives the judges a “voice” and some say about the changes in their working conditions, said Slavin. “Every three months, we’ll have a meeting with respect to security issues in our courts,” she explained. “If there are any moves of the courts, for example, we’ll have input into how space is set up, what kind of technology will be available and other related issues.” Gonzales said that he planned to set up periodic performance evaluations and proficiency exams for judges appointed in the new year. Any performance evaluations are likely to be a subject of collective bargaining, said Slavin, who raised concerns about the impact of such reviews on judicial independence. “We would be the first judges in the country to have performance reviews,” she said. “It’s difficult to see how they would work. It’s really virgin territory. There have been informal systems in place, but how do you incorporate those as well?” ‘Rigid guidelines’ decried Last spring, Slavin testified at a congressional hearing that many immigration judges believe that the reported incidents of intemperate or abusive judges have occcurred because of the Justice Department’s imposition of “case performance goals” on immigration judges. Those goals, she said, dictate rigid guidelines for the time frame of case completions, based on the age and the type of case. “Immigration judges routinely have four full hearings scheduled each day to determine the merits of a claim for relief from deportation, such as asylum, and are expected to render oral decisions from the bench on each case, with little time for reflection,” she testified. “We are charged with applying a complicated and frequently amended governing statute which has repeatedly been acknowledged as second only to the tax code in its legal complexity.” Add on the case-completion goals, she told the lawmakers, and there is no time in court for pleasantries. “It is not difficult to see how this pressure to expeditiously move cases through the system might be misconstrued and misinterpreted as a lack of courtesy by the party.” Changes in the governing law and the judges’ workload have been “overwhelming” since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Slavin said last week. The judges handle about 300,000 cases annually. “I don’t think we’ve kept up with the increases,” she said. “The attorney general’s report said there is a need for additional staffing and it will be addressed in 2008. But what about now?”

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