U.S. drops charges against Massachusetts judge in immigration arrest case

Massachusetts District Court Judge Shelley Joseph stands beside her lawyer outside of the federal courthouse in Boston

By Nate Raymond

BOSTON (Reuters) -U.S. prosecutors on Thursday said they reached an agreement to drop criminal charges filed during the Trump administration against a Massachusetts judge accused of impeding a federal immigration arrest of a defendant in her courtroom.

Federal prosecutors said they had agreed to dismiss the obstruction charges filed against Newton District Court Judge Shelley Joseph in exchange for the judge referring herself to a state commission tasked with investigating judicial misconduct.

Prosecutors are also dropping obstruction charges against her former courtroom deputy, Wesley MacGregor, who entered into a deferred prosecution agreement to resolve a remaining perjury count.

The high-profile case was filed in 2019 during clashes between former Republican President Donald Trump's administration and local governments that resisted his immigration crackdown and courthouse arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.

"This was a patently political indictment, blindly grounded in prosecutorial ambition," Thomas Hoopes, Joseph's lawyer, said.

Prosecutors claimed Joseph and MacGregor in 2018 helped a previously deported state court defendant evade being detained by an ICE agent by allowing him leave their Newton courthouse through a rear door.

Then-U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, a Trump appointee, first brought the case. His successor, Rachael Rollins, an appointee of Democratic President Joe Biden, as Boston's district attorney sued to block immigration arrests at courthouses after Joseph's indictment.

Due to Rollins' conflict, the case was reassigned to Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha, leaving him to decide whether to move forward after a federal appeals court in February declined to toss the indictment.

"I have concluded that the interests of justice are best served by review of this matter before the body that oversees the conduct of Massachusetts state court judges, rather than in a continued federal criminal prosecution," Cunha said.

Under Thursday's agreement, Joseph made certain factual admissions that the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct can consider when deciding to recommend whether the state's top court discipline her.

Lelling, now in private practice, said he respected Cunha's decision, as "prosecutors are going to differ on what they think is appropriate in a given case – especially in unusual cases." He urged the commission to "get to the bottom" of what happened.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in BostonEditing by Bill Berkrot and David Gregorio)