Colorado Democratic Congressman Jared Polis (CD2) used his first hearing appearance as a member of the House Judiciary Committee Thursday to question U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about matters close to the heart of Coloradans. He asked about federal raids on Colorado medical marijuana operations and the ramifications of Arizona’s new immigration law, which he was concerned might effectively deny immigrants their right to federal judicial review.
Polis and Holder on Arizona and immigration:
POLIS: … I’m worried about denying immigrants access to federal judicial review in light of the Arizona law, when they will be dragged into state courts in a fashion when the ultimate responsibility and authority regarding immigration is supposed to be that of the federal government. Are we worried about Arizona courts effectively trying to enforce federal immigration laws?
HOLDER: That’s one of the primary concerns that we have. Whether or not the impact of the Arizona statute preempts or is — whether the — it improperly interferes with what is ultimately a federal responsibility. Whether or not federal law preempts the Arizona statute. That is one of the things that we are looking at.
POLIS: And finally, there’s a significant backlog in our immigration courts, and I would like to you briefly outline the steps that you’re taking to restore fairness and efficiency to immigration courts, which have been identified by several studies as a need of major structural reforms, as well as additional financial resources.
HOLDER: We are — really have been engaged this fiscal year and next fiscal year in hiring a substantial number of immigration judges, which is one of the problems that we have. We simply need more people to process these cases. We have also engaged in I think training to make sure that the people who serve as judges and who are part of system are conducting themselves appropriately. We have a new chief judge who I think is doing a good job in the training component, and we’re trying to make sure that he and the people in the system have all of the tools that they need, so that that — our responsibility with regard to immigration is done in an appropriate way.
Holder has raised his own concerns about the constitutionality and racial profiling effects of the Arizona law, but it came out under Judiciary Committee questioning posed by Texas Republican Ted Poe, that Holder had yet to fully read the law.
On medical marijuana, Polis asked how the new federal policy regarding medical marijuana translates to enforcement. He refers particularly to a controversial arrest made by ICE agent Jeffrey Sweetin in suburban Denver on a grow house operated by resident Chris Barkowitz.
POLIS: My first question… I would like you to describe the objective processes that the D.A. and U.S. Attorneys are using in order to make a determination about whether individuals are in, quote, clear and unambiguous compliance with state law. How is that determined?
HOLDER: Well, it’s done on a — you know, people get — I guess tired of hearing this, but it is true. It’s done on a case by case basis. We look at the state laws, and what the restrictions are, what the — how the law is — how the law is constructed, and there are a number of factors in that memo–that are — are guides. Is marijuana being sold consistent with state law? Are arms — are firearms somehow associated with the sale? There are a variety of factors that are contained within the memo that went out from the Deputy Attorney General that United States’ Attorneys and Assistant United States’ Attorneys are supposed to apply, supposed to consider when trying to make the determination about whether or not federal resources are going to be used to go after somebody who is dealing in marijuana.
POLIS: I would certainly encourage that the question of whether or not it’s consistent with state law certainly be left to state enforcement actions. In particular, I brought to your concern in a letter of February 23rd requesting a clarification of your policies regarding medical marijuana with regard to several statements that were made by one of your agents in Colorado, Jeffrey Sweeten. Along the lines of the quote — as quoted in the paper, the time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building, and we arrest everybody. They’re violating federal law. They’re at risk of arrest and imprisonment, end quote. I would like to ask what steps you might take to make sure that the spirit of the enforcement mechanisms that you outlined to me and the answer to your previous questions are not contradicted by the statements of agents that, in fact, then strike fear into legitimate businesses in eyes of our states.
HOLDER: Well, it’s incumbent upon me as Attorney General to make sure that what we have set out as policy is being followed by all of the components within the Department of Justice and to the extent that somebody at the DEA, somebody at — some Assistant United States’ Attorney is not following that policy. It is my responsible to make sure that the policy is clear, that the policy is disseminated, and that people act in conformity with policies that we have determined.
POLIS: Do you believe — do you agree that statements that could be reasonably taken as threatening to businesses that are legal in our state are, in fact, contrary to your stated policy?
HOLDER: Well, again, if the entity is, in fact, operating consistent with state law, and is not — does not have any of those factors involved that are contained in that Deputy Attorney General memo, and given, again, the limited resources that we have and our determination to focus on major traffickers, that would be inconsistent with what the policy as we have set it out.