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September 10, 2014

Recused Iranian American Judge Fights Back Against Discrimination

Afsaneh Ashley Tabaddor

Does civic participation imply bias, or was a judge recused from cases involving Iranians because of her Iranian-American heritage? That seems to be the underlying question behind Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor lawsuit against the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). 

According to AP News, Tabaddor filed a lawsuit on August 12, 2014 in federal court, claiming she was targeted in the 2012 recusal order after she accepted the White House’s invitation and attended the “Roundtable with Iranian-American Community Leaders” organized by the White House Office of Public Engagement. Since the DOJ’s order, she has had to recuse herself from 8 cases involving Iranians in the LA Immigration court where she practices. A judicial recusal is defined in the constitution as disqualifying oneself in any proceeding in which one’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned especially if there is personal bias involved. Although Tabaddor has not been accused of bias, the officials state that they have issued the order to avoid any appearance of bias. 

Tabaddor has fired back, saying that the recusal order is discriminatory and threatening to the decision-making power of all immigration judges. Her lawsuit states that, “Unless the agency is prevented from having unbridled power to issue recusal orders against immigration judges, based on their race, national origin, religion or perceived interests, the effect is that immigration judges will be improperly manipulated and intimidated by Justice Department officials, and their decisional independence will be severely threatened.”

The National Association of Immigration Judges has come out in strong support of Tabaddor’s lawsuit, stating that immigration judges have the right to engage in civic life on their own time and the recusal order violates that. In response to the DOJ’s claims that the recusal will prevent bias, the organization stated that “fundamentally, the suggestion that an Immigration Judge cannot fairly administer the law because of the Judge’s racial or ethnic heritage, or association with a particular race, national origin or religion sets a dangerous precedent.” Moreover, the press release stated that “while at one point the DOJ prided itself on attempting to appoint Judges who reflected the diverse racial and ethnic communities they served” this order deters those very judges from engaging in their communities and is an act of “racial profiling”. 

So why is the DOJ not upholding its own standards of diversity? Is this really about the impartiality of a judge, or it is an act of discrimination against the Iranian-American community?

Up until recently, Iranian Americans in general have stayed out of American politics and in doing so, their needs have been unrepresented. Today, the Iranian-American community more engaged than it has ever been. But it has not come without opposition. For instance, the White House event that was the basis for Tabaddor’s recusal was also the subject of an attack by a neoconservative publication against the National Iranian American Council and other attendees. The outlet claimed, dubiously, that the White House event with Iranian Americans was “a slap in the face to the pro-Israel community.”

Tabaddor herself discussed some of the hurdles for Iranian American civic engagement in the past in an article entitled, “Race Matters: Are Middle Easterners Really White?” published in 2010:

 “By accepting ‘White’ as an identity, the community has been placated into silence, believing that it is part of the majority voice, leaving it disarmed in times when its members need protection the most. The ‘whiteness’ has essentially whitewashed the identity of the Middle-Eastern community to the detriment of its social and political voice in America.” 

The lawsuit has garnered national news coverage and has been followed closely within the Iranian American community, including by the Iranian American Bar Association and the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans. Even with the community’s increasing involvement in American civic life, there is no doubt that there will be obstacles ahead for Iranian Americans as we increase our engagement in American politics. The results of this ongoing lawsuit may be important for what that participation will mean for Iranian Americans in government.

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