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Is Denying a Solo Lawyer’s Motion for a Continuance Due to Maternity Leave Sexist – Or Worse?

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By now, you’ve probably read about Stacy Ehrisman, the Georgia attorney who filed a judicial complaint against immigration judge J. Daniel Pelletier after he denied her unopposed continuance request due to maternity leave and then berated her when she showed up with her four-week old infant in tow.  Lots of female commenters – Staci Zaretsky,  Above the Law, Alaina Sullivan, freelance attorney, Modvive and Caitlin White, MTV – took  the judge to task for sexism – both for refusing to accommodate Ehrisman’s schedule and humiliating her in the courtroom.

But was the judge a sexist?  I’m not so sure.  Law is an uncertain business and there are never guarantees that a request for a continuance will be granted, even when it’s unopposed.  All lawyers – and solos in particular, who often struggle to find back up – deal with this kind of uncertainty every day. But until we start using technology to cut down on the number of onerous and useless in-person scheduling conferences that run up client bills (geez, why not just use Doodle?), juggling court dates is always just a little like Russian Roulette.  My guess is that most lawyers, male or female, requesting family based leave from Judge Pelletier could expect the same result as Ehrisman received.

Likewise, there’s no question that Judge Pelletier’s remarks to Ehrisman were way out of line.  But seems that Judge Pelletier is also a big bully – and nasty as his remarks were to Ehrisman, they pale in comparison to his reported treatment of detainees.  

Though I’m grateful that Ehrisman shed light on her encounter with Pelletier, the ensuing uproar over his chauvinism masks a more important question: whether Pelletier intentionally makes life difficult for lawyers in his courtroom.  After all, is it merely a coincidence that 33 percent of asylum seekers who appear before Judge Pelletier are unrepresented —  more than double the 14.3 percent national average? The lack of representation is particularly problematic for asylum seekers since only a scant 11 percent of those who are unrepresented seekers prevail on their claims. And in fact, Judge Pelletier denies asylum claims at a rate of 80.3 percent, substantially higher than the national average of 48.5 percent – which correlates to the larger percentage of unrepresented asylum seekers in his courtroom.

Whether Ehrisman prevails on her judicial complaint against Judge Pelletier, as far as I’m concerned, she’s already won this round. At the end of the day, Ehrisman didn’t let her personal situation – her move to a new location and thus, her lack of daycare for her baby or back up counsel – interfere with her professional obligations. Instead, Ehrisman packed up her baby, showed up in court, and despite the judge’s badgering, got the job done for her clients. Which is really all that matters.

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