Adrian Walker

Did Shelley Joseph obstruct justice? That might depend on your idea of ‘justice’

Newton District Court Judge Shelley M. Joseph left federal court last week after a hearing.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Newton District Court Judge Shelley M. Joseph left federal court last week after a hearing.

The federal government alleges that Shelley M. Joseph is a criminal who has obstructed justice. I think she is easily as ethical as the administration charging her with crimes.

Joseph is the Newton District Court judge who was indicted by a federal grand jury last week for allegedly helping a prisoner avoid being captured by an Immigration and Customs Officer who had been dispatched to her courtroom for that purpose in April 2018.

The defendant, Jose Medina-Perez, was in court for a drug offense. He had previously been deported twice before, though whether Joseph knew all of his background is unclear.


US Attorney Andrew Lelling, in announcing the indictment, insisted that prosecuting Joseph for obstruction was a matter of upholding the rule of law. Hearing him go on about the evils of obstruction, I was tempted to slip Lelling — a career federal prosecutor promoted under President Trump — a copy of the Mueller report.

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There is little precedent for indicting a judge for actions committed on the bench, in open court. (Obviously, judges have been indicted in many other circumstances.)

Lelling insisted that the case is simply about treating everyone equally under the law, and seemed offended that some — like me — have been skeptical of this investigation since its existence became public knowledge, in a Globe story in December.

He also insisted that this case has nothing whatsoever to do with immigration.

But it’s nearly impossible to separate this case from the roiling debate over immigration. As detaining immigrants in previously unthinkable places — like courts — has become commonplace, court personnel have made no secret of their being hesitant to cooperate. Some judges and court officers — people who normally have few qualms about incarceration — simply don’t want to be unwitting pawns in a chess match.


Joseph had been on the bench for only a short time when this case came before her. But her appointment by Governor Charlie Baker followed a methodical rise through the ranks as a prosecutor, solo practitioner, and adjunct law professor. Colleagues speak of her with both kindness and respect. There seems to be deep regret among peers that she would be the jurist in this awful situation.

But what of Lelling’s claims that this is all about equal treatment and accountability?

“I have had occasion to point out that the law must apply to all of us, even the rich and famous,” Lelling said, in a reference to his prosecution of the college admissions scandal. “Today, I would add that it must apply to the powerful. In certain quarters, I have heard the occasional gasp of dismay or outrage at the notion of holding a judge accountable for violating federal law. If this were a man or woman on the street, you wouldn’t be hearing any of those gasps, and neither would I.”

But the gasps Lelling refers to are not about holding judges accountable. No one thinks judges should be above indictment. What some people do oppose is a notion of justice that allows the federal government to haul immigrants out of courthouses and into custody when they haven’t been found guilty of anything. People are not opposed to “accountability’’; they are aghast at a system that leaves no space for basic humanity.

Lelling declared more than once that this case is not about immigration. But Joseph’s prosecution can’t be divorced from the events that produced it. An administration waging war on undocumented immigrants isn’t going to allow some state district court judge to resist.


Truthfully, Joseph probably is guilty of exercising very poor judgment, though it will be for a jury to decide whether it rises to the level of obstruction of justice or conspiracy. At this point, I’m skeptical.

But this isn’t just about a rogue judge in Newton. Plenty of Americans aren’t convinced that ICE agents belong in courtrooms, or outside classrooms. Call them obstructionists if you like. But perhaps they don’t quite share Andrew Lelling’s notion of justice.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.