When a two-year old is being a little loud, you might want to calmly get them to quiet down. Teenage babysitters have great tactics for this. But if you’re Judge V. Stuart Couch, logic and tenderness aren’t the route you choose to take.
Mother Jones reports that on March 30, 2016, Couch was in an immigration courtroom in Charlotte, North Carolina, when a two-year-old Guatemalan child was being a bit disruptive. Couch demanded that the child be quiet, and he did so by making threats:
I have a very big dog in my office, and if you don’t be quiet, he will come out and bite you!” Couch yelled. Couch continued, as a Spanish-language interpreter translated for the child, “Want me to go get the dog? If you don’t stop talking, I will bring the dog out. Do you want him to bite you?” Couch continued to yell at the boy throughout the hearing when he moved or made noise.
Kathryn Coiner-Collier was the only independent observer present in the courtroom, and told Mother Jones:
[her] mouth was on the floor as Couch threatened the child. At the time Coiner-Collier was a coordinator for a project run by the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy to assist immigrants who couldn’t afford attorneys. Coiner-Collier says she copied down everything Couch was saying, and afterwards wrote an affidavit containing the aggressive dialogue. Kenneth Schorr, the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s executive director, submitted a complaint to the Justice Department in April 2016.
Schorr expressed the same disbelief and frustration as Coiner-Collier, telling Mother Jones, “I was outraged. I’ve been practicing law for over 40 years and I have never experienced judicial conduct this bad.”
Schorr and Coiner-Collier’s reports were met with belief, but in a pattern too frequent for situations like these, no apparent consequence for Couch:
Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Deepali Nadkarni, Couch’s superior, interviewed Coiner-Collier multiples times about the affidavit and told her that it was accurate. Schorr says Nadkarni told him that everything in the affidavit was corroborated by the internal investigation. Nadkarni wrote to Schorr in June 2016, “Judge Couch acknowledged he did not handle the situation properly and assured me it will not occur again.”
Couch created a soundscape of silence during the incident that prevails till now. According to Coiner-Collier, he turned off the courtroom’s recording device as he threatened the child, and Nadkarni confirmed there were multiple breaks in the recording. As for those present besides Coiner-Collier, there’s little to be heard:
The boy’s mother declined to comment for this story, telling her attorney that she is still afraid of Couch. The Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the country’s immigration courts, declined to answer questions about the incident. The interpreter who translated for Couch at the hearing declined to speak on the record about the incident.
This traumatic event makes so many of the fault lines within the U.S. immigration system clear. Couch also made statements that seemed to purposely inflate the boy’s age, stating:
”I will have the record reflect that [the boy] is a 5-year-old respondent that has been very disruptive during this hearing,” Couch said, according to [Coiner-Collier’s] recollection in the affidavit. “The court had tried to control the child behavior’s and has been unsuccessful … The court is using a strong voice and strong language with him in the absence of parental control.”
The boys passport states that he was two, and Coiner-Collier says this was very obvious due to his small size. It’s just another example of immigrant children being forced into adult worlds far too young, and in situations no one should be put in, regardless of age. It’s unclear if the child even understood Couch’s threats, since his first language was a Mayan language, K’iche’, not Spanish, which the interpreter was speaking to him. The judge’s clear aggression, however, needed no translation.
Coiner-Collier was then asked to remove the boy from the courtroom. The boy resisted her, trying to stay with his mother. The boy screamed and cried in another room until he was reunited with his equally distressed mother.
It’s likely this type of incident didn’t occur just once, according to what was said after:
When she [Coiner-Collier] went back to the courtroom to file paperwork, Couch told her, “I owe you an apology.” He said he knew it wasn’t her job to watch over children. Then he made a comment that suggested he had threatened other children. Coiner-Collier paraphrased what he said in her affidavit: “Usually when I threaten children with scary animals, it works. Not with this kid.” (Coiner-Collier and others who have appeared before Couch never witnessed him threaten another child.)
Such action should have taken Couch off the bench, but instead it led to a promotion, by no one else than Donald Trump. Couch was one of five other judges promoted to the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals, which often has the final say on deportation of immigrants. Their collective records show bleak statistics:
All six judges reject asylum requests at a far higher rate than the national average; Couch granted just 7.9 percent of asylum claims between 2013 and 2018, compared to the national average of about 45 percent.
Apparently Couch has a reputation for intimidation. Coiner-Collier did say that in her experience with Couch, he would sometimes go out of his way to explain things to the immigrants in his courtroom, but on the other side of the spectrum, there were many days his aggressive temper couldn’t be bottled:
“He was scary as hell,” says one attorney who appeared before him. “Some days I thought he was gonna freakin’ have a heart attack on the stand because he was so worked up.”
After that 2016 hearing, Couch was supposed to have the case of the two-year old and his mother reassigned to another judge. Yet in August 2017, they were scheduled to appear in front of Couch again:
The mother’s attorney thought she seemed unusually nervous and asked what was up. She said Couch had yelled at her. The attorney had heard about the dog incident but didn’t know the names of the people involved, and she texted Coiner-Collier to see if her client’s son was the one who had been threatened. After learning that he was, the attorney wrote, “I cannot believe this.”
After the messages, the attorney asked Couch to reassign the case to another judge, and he agreed to do so. The new judge denied the mother and child asylum. This case has found its way through a twisted full circle. The mother appealed, and now her and her son’s is pending before the appeals board Couch now is a part of.