Lawyer threatened with contempt for leaking family detention documents

Attorney Bryan Johnson accompanies child migrants who testified before Congress about humanitarian concerns on July 29, 2014. Washington, D.C.
Attorney Bryan Johnson accompanies child migrants who testified before Congress about humanitarian concerns on July 29, 2014. Washington, D.C. Aura Bogado/

A federal judge has threatened to hold an immigration attorney in contempt of court after he leaked to McClatchy confidential settlement documents in a high-stakes legal battle over family detention.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California has ordered New York lawyer Bryan Johnson to appear in her Los Angeles courtroom on July 27 after he released a copy of a proposed settlement drafted by lawyers for mothers detained by U.S. immigration officials – the second time he allegedly violated a signed confidentiality agreement.

Johnson, a former consultant to immigration attorneys negotiating with government officials on behalf of the detained mothers and children, was terminated from the role shortly after he leaked to McClatchy a copy of the court’s confidential draft ruling, which concluded that the Obama’s administration’s rapid increase of family detention centers violates parts of a 1997 settlement on migrant children.

The Obama administration currently holds more than 2,500 parents and children – most of whom fled Central America – in family detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, and Berks County, Pa.

Last week, Johnson released a settlement proposal the immigration attorneys made to Justice Department officials. The proposal called for limiting the detention of most parents and children to less than two weeks but did not end family detention.

In her Monday order, Gee said the court had not required Johnson to answer for his first violation because the ruling was discussed in open court and a summary of the tentative ruling had been disseminated.

“It appears that the court’s silence with regard to Mr. Johnson’s initial violation of the May 12, 2015 order has emboldened Mr. Johnson to continue to violate the court’s order,” Judge Gee wrote.

Judge Gee said Johnson must answer why he should not be held in contempt or reported to the State Bar of New York.

Johnson declined to discuss the court’s order, but he told McClatchy previously that he released the documents to protect his clients in family detention.

He was pushed over the edge, he said, by the abrupt deportation of Lilian Oliva Bardales, 19, days after she allegedly attempted suicide. For several days after the attempt, she was kept from her 4-year-old son in a medical unit and blocked from meeting with an attorney until she was deported.

While the judge’s April 24 ruling was not binding, Johnson said the judge’s opinion was clear. He charged the government with violating the law under the guise that it was negotiating. He and other lawyers said they should be able to use Gee’s tentative ruling to defend their clients and “exercise their rights” under the 1997 settlement.

“This needs to stop,” he said at the time. “And I feel this (releasing the agreement) is the only way that there is a chance that the government will be held accountable.”

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