“Leaders at these agencies are filling open positions with transfers and outside hires and are making internal promotions before Trump takes office Jan. 20, according to internal documents and interviews.
The hiring could increase tensions between the Trump transition team and the Obama administration — a relationship that has grown worse in recent days due to disagreements over how the United States should handle its relationship with Israel and the issuance of new sanctions against Russia over its role in hacking incidents tied to the election.
Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, said in an interview late Friday that an agreement was struck in November that no new hires would be made after Dec. 1.
“After the election, the current administration notified us there would be a hiring freeze as of Dec. 1,” he said. “The understanding was that there would be a full accounting of anyone put on the payroll after then.”
White House Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Shannon Buckingham said in an email early Saturday, “On Dec. 7, the administration imposed a moratorium on the hiring of senior executives within the civil service, known as the Senior Executive Service or SES.”
“This policy is consistent with previous transitions and is intended to ensure that incoming agency heads have the opportunity to make or approve executive hiring decisions that will impact the agency’s performance in the next administration,” she added.”
As I have mentioned before, the U.S. Department of Justice’s (“DOJ’s”) Executive Office for Immigration Review (“EOIR”), which administers the U.S. Immigration Court System, is on the verge of leaving at least 78 U.S. Immigration Judge positions unfilled at the end of the Obama Administration. As of November 8, 2016, EOIR had filled just 296 of its authorized and funded 374 Immigration Judge vacancies. However, with a number of year-end retirements among the Immigration Judge Corps, the actual number of vacancies is almost certainly exceeds that previously announced.
Given that the U.S. Immigration Courts are struggling with a backlog of well over 500,000 cases — more than two years of work for 296 Immigration Judges, even assuming that they were all trained and fully productive, and that no new cases were filed — the lack of urgency in filling these judicial positions seems unusual, to say the least.
Over the past two Administrations, the DOJ has turned a Civil Service hiring system into a multi-tiered bureaucratic quagmire resulting in a hiring cycle that in too many cases substantially exceeds the much-criticized Senate confirmation process for Article III Federal Judges. But, the multiple layers of bureaucracy haven’t actually improved hiring quality.
Conspicuously absent from the process is meaningful input from anyone who actually practices in, appears before, sits on, or “consumes” the “judicial product” of the Immigration Courts (like judges of the U.S. Courts of Appeals who review final decisions from the Immigration Courts). Not surprisingly, the results of this opaque bureaucratic exercise have been heavily weighted toward new Immigration Judges from government backgrounds, to the disadvantage of those with private practice, academic, or non-governmental organization experience.
While the claimed “complexity” of Federal background checks and security clearances sometimes is blamed for the delays, that is, in plain terms, “poppycock.” The clearance process goes exactly as fast as the Attorney General tells it to go. Those of us who are familiar with the process, and have actually participated in it, know that it is a series of largely ministerial tasks, which with proper “motivation” can be accomplished in a matter of days, rather than months. The idea that any cabinet officer normally would wait a year or more to bring on needed talent from the private sector to fill a critical senior position is simply preposterous. In the past, senior level positions at EOIR and the DOJ, including Immigration Judges and Appellate Immigration Judges who serve on the Board of Immigration Appeals, were filled with candidates from outside the government in a fraction of the time IJ hiring currently takes.
As noted in the Washington Post article, the Trump Administration has announced an intention to impose an immediate hiring freeze. Immigration Judge vacancies might, or might not, be exempted as “public safety positions.” Nobody knows for sure.
U.S. Immigration Judges are senior Civil Service officials, with their own senior pay scale established by Congress. Immigration Judges certainly are equivalent to the Senior Executive Service positions that the Obama Administration appears to have agreed to informally freeze as of December 1, 2016, according to the article. Even if DOJ belatedly tries to rush new appointments through prior to January 20, it is far from clear that the incoming Administration would be legally bound to honor such last minute appointments, let alone outstanding offers.
The chickens might be coming home to roost for the DOJ’s and EOIR’s lackadaisical administration of the U.S. Immigration Courts. And, at this point, it could be too late to solve this self-created disaster. If so, in addition to those who might reasonably have expected to receive Immigration Judge appointments, the real losers will be due process and the American people.