EOIR Bans Art in Immigration Court

by Jason Dzubow on September 25, 2012

The Arlington Immigration Court recently relocated from Ballston to Crystal City, Virginia.  The new court is bigger and has public bathrooms (a BIG improvement for the bladder-impaired).  It is also totally devoid of art.

One of many walls in the Arlington Immigration Court.

For those of us who practice before the Arlington Court, the bare walls feel a bit strange.  The old court had portraits of the founding fathers, various presidents, and some of our founding documents.  You could also see busts and paintings of various presidents inside the courtrooms.  One IJ, now retired, was known for her husband’s paintings (mostly flowers), which adorned her courtroom walls.  

In stark contrast, you’re lucky to find a light switch on the walls of the new court.  Now, you might be thinking, “The Court just opened, so they haven’t yet had time to decorate.”  Not so.  I asked around about the barren landscape.  The word on the street is that courtrooms and waiting areas can no longer be “personalized.”  This means no art.  I contacted the Executive Office for Immigration Review (“EOIR” – the agency that administers the Immigration Courts) for clarification.  Their response:

As EOIR is one adjudicative agency with 59 immigration court locations throughout the nation, we strive to maintain uniform public spaces throughout our facilities.  As with other federal agencies, private spaces such as judges’ chambers and individual office space may be personalized within reasonable boundaries.

In this context, “uniform public spaces” means no wall art.  I suppose I understand the reasoning.  For one thing, if you allow any art, it is hard to control what ends up on the wall.  If EOIR allows a portrait of Abe Lincoln, must they also allow a portrait of anti-immigration president Warren G. Harding?  What about a portrait of presidential candidate (and anti-immigrant crusader) Pat Buchanan?  

Also, what about images that might not be culturally sensitive to the aliens appearing before the Court?  Much as Attorney General John Ashcroft covered a bare-breasted statue in the Justice Department, might some playboy IJ seek to fill a courtroom with inappropriate images?

Given all the potential pitfalls, it is easier to completely ban art in the courtroom than to allow art and then try to regulate it.

All the same, I am not a fan of this policy.  I liked going into courtrooms filled with paintings and statues.  I prefer a “personalized” courtroom (and waiting room) to an antiseptic one.  There is something ennobling about practicing law in a room filled with historic and patriotic images.

Also, while I see the need for IJs to avoid the appearance of impropriety, it is actual impropriety that concerns me.  If some IJ adores Warren G. Harding (and there are good reasons to), why not put up his photo?  I trust that the IJ will make a determination on the merits of each case, and that a picture of President Harding does not indicate an anti-immigration bias.  If we trust IJs to make decisions that will profoundly affect people’s lives, we should trust them to use some common sense in their courtroom decor.

I described the new courtroom ambiance to an asylee friend.  She feels that the bare walls and lack of art would be “intimidating.”

Maybe I am making too big a deal about this.  But there is a long history of art in courtrooms–it benefits the judges, the lawyers, and the litigants.  And while I sympathize with the reasons for EOIR’s decision, I think that the benefits of allowing art in court greatly outweigh the dangers.  To quote George Bernard Shaw: “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”

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