BOSTON — A Massachusetts judge charged with helping an immigrant escape a federal agent waiting to arrest him will be paid while her legal battle plays out, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.
Reversing course in a closely watched case that has showcased official resistance to the Trump administration’s tough immigration policy, the Supreme Judicial Court said Newton District Court Judge Shelley Joseph would resume collecting her annual salary of $181,000.
In a 5-1 decision, it also ordered that she receive back pay dating to late April, when the high court ruled she should be suspended without pay.
Joseph is fighting federal criminal charges for allegedly helping a man from the Dominican Republic slip out a back door of her courthouse while a federal immigration officer was waiting for him. She has pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice, and court records indicate she rejected a plea deal offered by federal prosecutors last month. A former court officer also was charged.
The case has drawn national attention, with Joseph’s lawyer denouncing her indictment as “absolutely political.”
“The federal and state governments have staked out different and sometimes conflicting positions on what can or cannot be done with respect to immigrants who are subject only to … civil warrants in state courthouses,” Justice Scott Kafker noted in an opinion attached to the decision made public Tuesday.
Joseph had argued in an affidavit filed last spring that her family faced mounting legal bills, had to borrow money from friends and family and was at risk of having to sell their home.
Lawyers’ groups and a collection of retired judges backed Joseph, calling it “unprecedented” to take away the pay of a judge who hasn’t been found guilty of wrongdoing.
The Massachusetts Bar Association, Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts and Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys said in court documents that judges “must be able to act without fearing for their livelihood or the well-being of their family if a powerful litigant, the public, or other judges disagree with their actions.”
Chief Justice Ralph Gants said Tuesday he came around to that view.
“In turbulent times, the risk of being stripped of a paycheck may have a chilling effect on a judge’s willingness to challenge the conduct of a prosecutor and thereby diminish the overall independence of the judiciary,” he wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Frank Gaziano said the decision “smacks of preferential treatment, and thereby erodes public confidence in the judiciary.”