Last week, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, based in Denver, Colorado, took the extraordinary step of initiating disciplinary actions against an immigration lawyer for… being a terrible immigration lawyer. In the legal world, what the panel did is called a benchslap.
Writing for the court —which also covers the states of Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming— U.S. Circuit Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, an appointee of George W. Bush, blasted the lawyer, John E. Reardon Sr., for his awful representation of Santiago Alejandre-Gallegos, an undocumented immigrant who was in deportation proceedings.
“We confess reluctance about having to proceed so summarily and about having to chastise a professional colleague in this way,” Gorsuch wrote. “Everyone makes mistakes, and surely judges no less than lawyers. But the shortcomings here don’t just suggest a mistake, a few, or even a thoroughgoing disinterest in the rules of procedure. They suggest a lack of competent representation.”
Through his attorney, Alejandre-Gallegos was hoping to move the court to “cancel” his order of deportation, under a provision of federal law that allows judges to make exceptions for “undue hardship”—in this case, hardship to Alejandre-Gallegos’ family members, who are U.S. citizens.
But we don’t know much about the man’s family or even the specifics of his case because, as the court noted, Reardon didn’t bother to “supply any citations to the record” in the case or “any legal authority that might remotely support his claim.” In other words, Reardon’s filings, which the court called “garbled,” were a hot mess.
The court acknowledged that Alejandre-Gallegos even “may have a good claim or at least an arguable one…we just cannot tell.” In light of the incompetence, it went ahead and took the extraordinary step of reviewing prior cases Reardon had filed in the court, and what it found was “disquieting.” In the nearly 10 years the lawyer had been representing other immigrants seeking to put a stop to their deportations, Reardon’s “filings in this court have consistently suffered from the sort of shortcomings present in this one.”
The court went on: “It turns out that this court has noted the problem time and again. It has reminded counsel of his professional obligations. It has admonished him. All to no effect.” We can only speculate what happened to Reardon’s poor clients. The court then went ahead and ordered sanctions against him, which could potentially include a monetary assessment and disbarment from practicing before the court.
The four-page order is a light read and is worth checking out in full—especially if you’re a lawyer who represents immigrants, or aspire to be one. A cautionary tale of what not to do. Immigrants deserve better.
Cristian Farías writes on legal affairs, civil rights, and the courts. You can follow him on Twitter.