Ask an Phoenix immigration attorney to name their favorite judge.
Many will say Judge John Richardson.
He's the same judge who stopped the deportation of four high school students, known as the Wilson Four, who were detained by immigration officials during a 2002 class trip to the Niagara Falls. That decision made headlines — and drew criticism.
He was considered the go-to judge for juvenile defendants, and accordingly kept a box of toys in his courtroom.
When the Obama administration encouraged judges to close low-priority deportation cases, he exercised this new discretion liberally.
Now, Richardson is retiring after 28 years on the bench. He's one of two Phoenix immigration judges stepping down on September 30. Judge Wendell Hollis, who was appointed in 2003, will also hang up his robes.
Phoenix's six immigration judges preside over thousands of cases every year, including removal proceedings. A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, a Department of Justice agency that oversees the immigration courts, did not respond to questions about when the two judges will be replaced.
"EOIR constantly monitors its caseload nationwide to determine current and future immigration judge assignments, including shifting resources to meet needs in the most efficient possible manner," said spokesperson Teresa Kaltenbacher.
The retirements come amid dramatic changes for U.S. immigration courts.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has restricted judges from using "administrative closures" to indefinitely hold cases of immigrants with ties to the country and no criminal record. Speeding up deportations has become the goal. Judges who want “satisfactory” marks must clear at least 700 cases a year, a new quota policy that critics warn could sacrifice fairness for expediency.
Judge Richardson, known as an independent thinker, is now expected by the administration to give less weight to factors that could support an immigrant's case for relief. Some attorneys believe he is resigning as a matter of conscience.
"I’m sure the reason he is leaving is because he is not going to put up with this anymore,” said Judy Flanagan, who has been practicing immigration law in metro Phoenix for two decades. "It must be disheartening for any judge that wants to do justice to work under Jeff Sessions. I just can’t imagine.”
“He’s the best judge here,” said John Pope, who started working full-time as an immigration lawyer in 2001.
"I love the man," said attorney Jesse Westover.
Richardson declined an interview request from Phoenix New Times, citing court policy.
In July, Richardson offered a public hint of discontentment when a 1-year-old appeared before his bench. The child, separated from his family under Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, drank from a milk bottle and "hysterically cried" after his appearance, according to the Associated Press. Richardson hesitated when he got to a part in the hearing when he asks whether a defendant understands what they've heard.
“I’m embarrassed to ask it, because I don’t know who you would explain it to, unless you think that a 1-year-old could learn immigration law," he said.
For many local immigration attorneys, Richardson's retirement means the loss of many of their clients' best hope for relief.
"In the wake of the new administration and their openly anti-immigration stance and anti-illegal-immigration stance, there was always a sense of fair play and hope and dignity when you walked into Judge Richardson’s courtroom,” said Delia Salvatiarra, an immigration lawyer who has been practicing in the region for more 10 years. "I can safely say that that is no more.”
Richardson was more willing to grant continuances for immigrants seeking relief outside his courtroom. Take, for example, someone petitioning for a family-based green card. Or an immigrant applying for a special visa reserved for crime victims who are willing to assist law enforcement with an investigation. Sessions wants fewer continuances.
Immigrants seeking asylum had a better shot with Richardson than most judges in the country. Richardson granted 91 percent of asylum applications that came across his bench over the last six years, according to an analysis by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. That puts him in the top 10 percent among immigration judges in the country.
"He believed in America being the greatest country in the world for people who are fleeing dire, threatening circumstances in their home country," Salvatiarra said, who choked up while talking about Richardson's impending retirement.
The Trump administration has made it more difficult to get asylum.
Richardson was also more likely to grant relief from deportation to someone with a criminal record.
"When he saw true criminals in front of him, he treated them accordingly, but when he saw people who had simply made a mistake, as we all might do as some point, he took into consideration that people make mistakes," said William DeSantiago, who has been an immigration attorney with Catholic Charities Community Services for 23 years.
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Richardson was appointed as an immigration judge in 1990. From 1968 to 1990, he served in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corp in various capacities, including trial attorney and trial judge, before becoming legislative counsel for the Secretary of the Army. He went to law school at the University of Kentucky.
Richardson was known to ride a Harley Davidson and wear an earring in his left ear, the Arizona Republic reported in 2005. That article, by longtime immigration reporter Daniel González, noted that Richardson is a conservative who kept photos of himself with Presidents Bush (both W. and H.W.) in his office.
Some attorneys thought Richardson would never retire.
Westover said, "He joked with a lot of people that this would be a long tenure for him. The thing he said was he has nothing better to do."