Updated at 2:24 p.m.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, D.C., was outraged Thursday when he learned federal agents had “spirited away”—by airplane, in the middle of a court case—a mother and her daughter who were seeking asylum in the U.S.
Sullivan directed the government “to turn that plane around either now or when it lands, turn that plane around and bring those people back to the United States. It’s outrageous.” U.S. prosecutors said they did not “disagree” with Sullivan’s ire, and they said they would comply with the order. Sullivan went so far as to threaten contempt proceedings against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The Justice Department is expected Friday to file a status report by 5 p.m. We’ve posted, below, a copy of Sullivan’s order directing the U.S. to return the mother and her daughter “forthwith” to the U.S. Sullivan on Friday further ordered the government to file a “comprehensive report”—by Aug. 13—about the circumstances that led to the removal of the mother and her daughter.
Sullivan, a District native, has served on Washington’s federal trial bench since 1994. He’s known widely for dynamic court hearings—Sullivan is rarely quiet on the bench. We’ll see more of Sullivan soon—he’s presiding over the special counsel prosecution of Michael Flynn, and he’s got an emoluments suit in which Democratic lawmakers are taking on President Donald Trump.
Yes, like many judges, Sullivan has been outraged before by U.S. government action. Here are three other moments when Sullivan found himself troubled.
➤➤ Perhaps most famously, Sullivan excoriated U.S. Justice Department prosecutors for hiding the ball in the corruption prosecution of the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, charged with filing false financial disclosures in the U.S. Senate. At one hearing, in 2009, Sullivan called the government’s behavior “outrageous” and “not acceptable in this court.” A federal appeals court later remarked about Sullivan’s language: “For better or for worse, commenting that a party’s conduct is ‘unacceptable’ or even ‘outrageous’ is neither unprecedented nor exceptional in the course of trial litigation.” The case against Stevens fell apart posttrial, and the Justice Department would embrace greater training for prosecutors on their ethical obligations.
➤➤ Sullivan has criticized the dearth of white-collar criminal prosecutions against individuals, lamenting how the Justice Department, at least in the past decade or so, focused big-ticket cases on companies, and not corporate executives. That refrain was loud during the Obama-era Justice Department under Eric Holder’s leadership. “No one ever goes to jail,” Sullivan said in remarks in 2015. “I think it’s just unjust.” Holding more executives accountable through deferred prosecution agreements, Sullivan once said, would not add to “the country’s outrageous prison population.” In a case he heard in 2015, Sullivan assailed a Justice Department agreement with General Motors Co. as “a shocking example of potentially culpable individuals not being criminally charged.”
➤➤ In a closely watched class action, Sullivan lamented what he called a “monumental” failure after $380 million went unspent. “Although a $380,000,000 donation by the federal government to charities serving Native American farmers and ranchers might well be in the public interest, the court doubts that the judgment fund from which this money came was intended to serve such a purpose,” Sullivan wrote in a ruling in 2015. “The public would do well to ask why $380,000,000 is being spent in such a manner.” A federal appeals judge later derided the so-called cy pres money as a “slush fund disguised as a settlement.”
Here’s the order from Sullivan on Thursday in the asylum case Grace v. Sessions: