Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Judge Lawrence Karlton, Defender of Immigrant Rights by Vicky Yau


Judge Lawrence Karlton, retired U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, passed away Sunday, July 11, 2015 from a heart condition. In an industry where intellect reigns supreme, Judge Karlton fit right in.  But, in his 35 years of service, Judge Karlton never forgot the importance of balancing the brain with the heart when making his decisions, a challenge that defeats many in his field. His judgments show an experienced mastery of the law, swirled in with compassion for the human condition. Nowhere is this more apparent than in 2009 when he, in a panel with two other judges, ruled to mandate a reduction in the California prison population in order to improve medical and mental healthcare within the system. Or more relevant to our discussion, his immigration decision in the late 1980’s provided amnesty for over 50,000 undocumented immigrants.

 On November 6, 1986, Congress enacted 8 U.S.C. § 1255(a), granting legal status to undocumented immigrants who had maintained continuous presence in the U.S. since the statute’s enactment. The statute provided that “brief, casual, and innocent absences” would not break an alien’s continued presence. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) sought to define “brief, casual, and innocent” as only agency-approved absences. An interpretation of this nature would have disqualified thousands of undocumented immigrants who had made brief trips outside the U.S. to visit dying relatives and even one man who fell asleep in a car and was unwittingly driven across the Mexican border by his friends seeking a couple hours of fun. These immigrants subsequently brought a class action, Catholic Social Services, Inc. v. Meese, challenging the INS’ definition of “brief, casual, and innocent” before Judge Karlton. While his opinion exercised the masterful application of law to facts, it’s likely not too much of a stretch to believe that a man, whom his previous law clerk described as someone who respected the humanity and dignity of even the most despised of society, kept the affected aliens in mind during his analysis.

In order to be certain he made the correct decision in Catholic Social Services, Judge Karlton applied the plain meaning rule, reviewed legislative history, reviewed the history of INS’ interpretation of “brief, casual, and innocent,” and the history of the court’s interpretation of the phrase. After analyzing the INS’ interpretation from these five different angles, Judge Karlton determined that there was simply no basis to uphold the agency’s definition of “brief, casual, and innocent” as only authorized departures. In addition to barring the INS’ from requiring advanced parole, Judge Karlton, realizing that the INS interpretation may have discouraged many aliens from applying for amnesty, mandated a temporary reopening of the application period.

After the decision, the INS agreed to remove the advanced parole requirement, but they appealed the requirement to extend the application deadline. However, subsequent litigation regarding this matter did not make an appearance in Judge Karlton’s courtroom until late 2011 in Catholic Social Services. v. Napolitano. Here, the plaintiff aliens, sued for attorney’s fees and costs, pursuant to the Equal Access to Justice Act, for their years of monitoring to ensure the agency properly enforced the case settlements. Again, after a thorough analysis and application of law to fact, Judge Karlton ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, granting their motion for fees and costs.

 In his 35 years of service, Judge Karlton’s decisions have and will continue to affect countless individuals. Throughout his legal career, Judge Karlton fearlessly stood in the face of stigmatism; from his beginnings as an ACLU lawyer, defending the rights of draft dodgers, Vietnam War protestors, and unions, to his days on the bench, defending the liberties of criminals and undocumented immigrants, Judge Karlton’s decisions brimmed with understanding of both the intellectual and compassionate kind. 

Vicky Yau is a second year law student at UC Davis School of Law.



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