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Although U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced last week the completion of several reforms proposed nine months ago for immigration judges, the union president for the judges said they have been told that some items are not far enough along to negotiate. The biggest sticking point for the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ) has been creation of annual performance reviews and proficiency testing for judges. On March 13, Gonzales told the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body of the federal courts, that nine of 22 reforms had been implemented and others were near completion. “We now have a system to measure the performance of new immigration judges and board members, and newly appointed judges and board members are now required to pass a proficiency exam prior to deciding cases,” Gonzales told the judicial conference. “I think it is ironic, as soon as the plan was announced [in August 2006] we made a demand to bargain, but we were immediately told that our request was premature,” said Judge Denise Slavin, president of the union and an immigration judge in Miami, Florida. Despite last week’s announcement that a performance evaluation was complete and would be implemented subject to bargaining obligations, “we have still not been told anything about being able to bargain,” she said. Asked if she had been seen what new standards would be employed she said, “No, no, nothing. It puts us in a very awkward situation. If they [the Justice Department] has done something, they need to release it to us,” Slavin said. The union strenuously objects to annual reviews and whether speed in decision-making will be pushed over fairness and accuracy. Criticism of the quality and alleged bias of a minority of the nation’s 218 immigration judges has grown in recent years, spurred by published opinions in federal appeals courts excoriating the lack of quality in work by some immigration judges, which work for the Justice Department. Unlike federal judges who are nominated to lifetime terms by the president and confirmed by the Senate, immigration judges work for the Justice Department. Slavin said that despite last week’s statements that a new training program is complete for judges, “nothing has been implemented. There has been no training since the last session in August,” she said. “There is a conference being planned for August but the agenda has not even been announced,” so it is impossible to know training topics that may be covered. “The one thing they did was us to do was provide volunteers to work on new training. We provided the volunteer. To my knowledge they never contacted the person,” she said. Gonzales told the judges group last week, “we will be releasing a draft code of conduct soon for public comment.” Asked if the NAIJ had seen a copy of the draft: “nope, no standards, nothing, we haven’t seen anything,” she said. The closed-door creation of performance standards for immigration judges at a time when Gonzales is under attack for firing eight U.S. attorneys based allegedly on politics and not performance has drawn added criticism. “If this attorney general were as intellectually dishonest with regard to evaluation of immigration judges as he has been with regard to evaluation of U.S. attorneys, then the proposal would be a sham and an insult to the judicial process,” said Bruce Einhorn, a retired immigration judge from Los Angeles and currently adjunct professor at Pepperdine University School of Law. The Justice Department declined to comment beyond the prepared statements on the immigration reform.

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