All the terrible stuff the Trump administration does that keeps you up at night grinding your teeth – the horror show at the border, the betrayal of the Kurds, the shakedown of Ukraine – that’s just the stuff that makes headlines. All over the country, in every nook and cranny of society, there’s more.
You read about the secretary of the Navy. His letter of resignation said, “I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took.” Well, there are thousands of us with the same problem whom you haven’t read about. Me, for instance.
I’m a labor arbitrator. I hear cases between employers and labor unions. In discharge cases, I serve as an independent neutral third party to determine whether there has been just cause for termination. If there isn’t, I can order the worker reinstated. At least that used to be my job.
I recently had a case involving the American Federation of Government Employees and the Department of Veterans Affairs. It looked like any other arbitration: the lawyers in dark suits, the swearing of witnesses and taking of testimony, the writing of briefs. But in the only way that matters, it was nothing of the sort.
Since the last time I had a case involving the VA and an AFGE employee, President Trump signed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 into law. Under the new law we went through the motions, but we were only pretending to conduct an arbitration.
I don’t know if it protects whistleblowers or not, but I do know the law removes protection from VA employees who are discharged. It explicitly requires any reviewing official (including arbitrators like me) to uphold the decision of the department. By any meaningful definition, what I conducted was a show trial.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “So what? Why should I care about this arbitrator I’ve never heard of and his problem with the VA? The government is pulling screaming babies from their mothers’ arms and increasing the amount of arsenic coal companies can discharge into the drinking water. I’ve got too much on my plate to worry about this guy.” But that’s my point. There are people like me everywhere.
Massachusetts Judge Shelley Joseph, for example, has been charged with obstruction of justice in Boston after allegedly allowing a criminal defendant in her courtroom to sneak out a back door to avoid being detained by ICE. Across the country, legal advocates have expressed alarm at the sharp increase of ICE arrests at courthouses under Trump. They say it will keep immigrants from testifying in trials or otherwise participating in the legal system.
The prosecutor in the Joseph case, U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, told the Boston Globe, “Some of our judges are motivated by their personal conclusions that it’s unfair in certain instances to deport someone.”
Exactly. And we can expect to see a lot more of this.
Attorney Doug Stephens resigned from his job as a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officer in San Francisco because he couldn’t bring himself to participate in a system that pretended to impartially analyze asylum claims when, under new Trump administration rules, all it really did was help facilitate deportations.
As Trump administration policies get more extreme, the employees whose job it is to carry out those policies are having increasing difficulty reconciling their duty to uphold the law with their personal morality.
From the cases that make news down to my case in an obscure VA facility in flyover land and everywhere in between, the mendacity and absurdity of Trump administration policies permeate the system. For every Shelley Joseph or Doug Stephens, there are thousands of others struggling to do their jobs in a way that will allow them to live with themselves.
Judge Joseph allegedly chose to obstruct justice – a decision that runs contrary to a judge’s fundamental dedication to the rule of law. Stephens chose to resign – in what must have been an equally agonizing decision.
What will the rest of us do? And how will we know when it is time to do it?
Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator in Michigan. He is the author of “The Science of Settlement.”