ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Something unusual happened in U.S. District Court in Boston today. A state judge was indicted and arraigned on obstruction of justice charges. Along with a trial court officer, she is accused of helping an undocumented immigrant escape from an immigration officer. Reporter Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WGBH joins us now from outside that Boston courthouse. Hi, Gabrielle.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Hi there.
SHAPIRO: Explain what exactly prosecutors are alleging happened here.
EMANUEL: So this all took place in a courtroom outside Boston in Newton about a year ago. And Judge Shelley M. Richmond Joseph was presiding over a hearing for Jose Medina-Perez. He's a Dominican national who was picked up on drug charges. And Perez has a history of legal troubles, and he'd been deported from the U.S. twice before.
So when Perez was scheduled to come into court, an ICE officer was waiting at the courthouse to detain him. And prosecutors say Judge Joseph knew the ICE officer was there and wouldn't let him into her courtroom. After she heard Perez's case, Judge Joseph asked to turn off the court recording for 52 seconds. And a few minutes later, Wesley MacGregor, the trial court officer, escorted Perez out the back door. He jumped the fence and ran off and avoided ICE.
The indictment alleges Judge Joseph lied about this series of events. But today, both Joseph and MacGregor pleaded not guilty.
SHAPIRO: It is rare for prosecutors to bring federal charges against a sitting judge. Did they address that today?
EMANUEL: It is very rare. U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling basically said nobody's above the law. And he stressed that this is particularly egregious because it was a judge who allegedly interfered with federal law enforcement. He also made a point to emphasize that he's not trying to make a political statement about immigration policy. Here he is at the press conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
ANDREW LELLING: This case is not intended as a policy statement, at least not beyond making the point that the laws have to apply equally even if you're a state court judge. So no, we did not bring this case in response to the public debate over immigration enforcement.
EMANUEL: So it's worth noting that the investigation was led by Homeland Security, which includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and not the Department of Justice. U.S. Attorney Lelling said today that that's just because they're good investigators.
SHAPIRO: So he says this has nothing to do with the national debate over immigration, but many others see it differently. What are the critics saying?
EMANUEL: Yeah, so Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called the charges politically motivated attack. Healey is a Democrat, and she said that the federal prosecutors are interfering with operations at state courts, and she said that's a violation of our constitutional system. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts also said the indictment was preposterous, ironic and deeply damaging to the rule of law. They said that the way the Justice Department defines obstruction of justice in this case is, quote, "shockingly aggressive." And they compare it to what they say is, quote, "famously narrow standard for obstruction of justice that Attorney General William Barr has been applying to President Trump."
SHAPIRO: So what are the broader implications of this case?
EMANUEL: Yeah, so as you said, it is certainly rare. It's pretty extraordinary, actually, for a sitting judge to be charged with a federal crime, especially for something that happened in the courtroom. But this case highlights kind of a sort of tug of war between state and federal legal authorities, especially over issues of immigration and deportation. But we're going to have to see how it all plays out in the trial once it gets underway. And meanwhile, Judge Joseph has been suspended from hearing cases without pay.
SHAPIRO: That's reporter Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WGBH in Boston. Thanks a lot.
EMANUEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.