Retired Attorney/ Volunteer Attorney Board of Immigration Appeals
I came across Thomas Crowley’s Facebook profile when we both commented on a mutual friend’s post. He shared his legal career history in his profile, and it was truly impressive and expansive. At one point, he worked for Pennsylvania as Deputy Attorney General and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection as Senior Counsel. He even taught at Temple University Law School. But what truly caught my eye was his current position as a pro bono volunteer attorney for the BIA (Board of Immigration Appeals). If someone was willing to work without pay using his professional expertise, I guessed he was extremely passionate about his work. I decided to approach him cold via Facebook messenger and he was open and receptive to the idea of being part of the project to share his love for the legal work. I was thrilled.
On Martin Luther King’s Day, I drove two hours to meet Thomas Crowley for the first time at his home full of art and keepsakes from trips all over the world. We settled at his office upstairs among shelves stocked with legal literature.
Hazel: I’m so glad to finally meet you. Thank you for agreeing to be my subject! Let’s talk about your legal career.
Thomas: Thanks for coming over! I retired in 2017 as a full-time attorney after more than 30 years in legal practice but continue to be involved serving the community with my legal expertise. Soon after retirement, I started a legal blog called Ignorantia Legis Non Excusat*, https://ignorantialegisnonexcusat.wordpress.com/.
*In Latin, it literally means ignorance of the law excuses not. It’s a legal principle that makes someone still liable when one violates the law even if he/she were unaware of the law.
Hazel: Tell me more about your blog and how you came to start it.
Thomas: With Trump becoming our president came the travel bans. Many people were asking me legal questions on social media and I addressed them. That got me thinking that I should just put the information in one place for all to see, and some people suggested a blog. I know many people find legal jargon to be intimidating so I try to minimize the usage of it and try to explain in plain English to help those new to law. I also try to be concise by editing my own draft. The subtitle is : “Legal Education for All”.
Hazel: What was your specialty in law? Did you like it?
Thomas: I did mostly appellate and environmental law. I felt so passionate about both.
Hazel: When you say appellate, just to clarify, you mean as in appeals?
Thomas: Yes. The appellate court deals with cases that are being considered for reversal or affirmance of the prior ruling.
Hazel: Can you tell me more about appellate law and what aspects you loved about it? How is it different than doing conventional litigation work?
Thomas: For litigation work that is not appellate in nature, the main duties are gathering facts and witnesses and structuring and strategizing how the cases get presented in court. For appellate work, records of facts and witnesses are all pre-established. The key to appellate work is doing the best you can to construct an argument based on the ruling below, for or against. And often times the most complex, difficult and controversial cases make it to appellate court so I love the mental challenge. It’s very much like solving a puzzle or playing chess. I enjoy anticipating and reading the opponents’ potential strategy and thinking about how I would respond. I guess I always have enjoyed thinking logically and coming up with writing up arguments. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degree in philosophy and debated in high school.
Hazel: That’s wonderful. How did you get exposed to appellate law in the first place?
Thomas: My very first job out of law school was a 2.5-year clerkship with Justice Hutchinson of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the highest court in the state. By nature, all cases that come to a supreme court are appellate as they were not resolved to someone’s satisfaction in the lower courts. It’s rare to have to elevate cases from state Supreme Court to the U. S. Supreme Court. I really enjoyed some of the cases I was assigned to research. Justice Hutchinson once quoted a former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. Jackson said, “We are not supreme because we are right. We are right because we are supreme.” I took that to heart. Keeping myself humble was important.
Hazel: What an awesome quote! So does one justice make the final call on the ruling at a state level supreme court or are there several judges?
Thomas: There are several judges at each state supreme court ranging from 5 to 9. In Pennsylvania’s supreme court, the oldest one in our nation, there are 7 justices that make decisions together.
Hazel: So I have this burning question for any attorney… What do you do when you don’t personally believe in the side you are supposed to defend?
Thomas: Since I was always assigned cases and did not have a choice in whom I had to represent, I never had to personally face the issue of having to choose the client. However, as an attorney, you must perform your professional duties and set aside your personal opinions or feelings.
One of the first cases I studied as a first-year law student was the case where ACLU (American Civil Liberty Union) successfully defended the right of American Nazi organization to march in Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, a very divisive case. You learn that everyone is entitled to representation in court.
Hazel: Thank you for that insight! Professionalism without prejudice you mention is similar to that of healthcare workers’. Sometimes, they have to treat criminals who get injured while committing crimes such as killing innocent people. But medical professionals must treat everyone, regardless of who they are and why they are there.
Thomas: True. In normal civil litigation, there is something called discovery. As an attorney, you get to ask for all sorts of documents and ask any questions. During the process, if a legal professional finds out about someone about to harm another, he/she is obligated to report to the authorities.
The attorneys in private sector who must select whom to represent ultimately have the Code of Professional Conduct to abide by when deciding accepting clients.
Hazel: Thank you for educating me. I want to now ask about your pro bono work with Board of Immigration Appeals. Can you tell me more about that?
Thomas: Yes, I’m happy to talk about it. I work free of charge for immigrants who entered the U.S. trying to seek asylum but have been detained. It is normally their appeal to the BIA, having been denied relief. But sometimes they have been given relief and the government is appealing. I get assigned to them when their case goes to the Board.
Hazel: So, where do these asylum seekers reside while they wait for the ultimate court decision?
Thomas: They are mainly in detention centers, located mostly in California, Texas and Louisiana. Some are even detained in county jails.
Hazel: Where do most of them come from? How long does it normally take for a case to be decided and closed?
Thomas: Mostly, the immigrants I defend are from Mexico and Central America. I did have one person from Sudan and another from Guinea. As for the turn around time for decision, it varies widely anywhere from 2 months to 3 years. It’s hard to predict how long a case would take to close.
Hazel: Heartbreaking! What is the process of working on the cases? How do you communicate with your clients and get to know them?
Thomas: I rarely ever get to visit or meet the immigrants I defend in person. I get written records and briefs mailed by Board of Immigration Appeals. I mail my work back to the court and everything is done remotely, and no live court hearing ever happens. It makes me so sad to see the majority of my clients lose and get deported, but at least they had legal counsel. But one big upside is if they do win at the Board of Immigration Appeals, the Department of Homeland Security cannot challenge the decisions at the appeals court so they get to stay in the U.S.
Hazel: What has been the proudest moment in your life and/or career?
Thomas: I am proud that I have had to overcome physical challenges ever since I was born. I had extremely bad eyesight from birth. My left eye actually never had any vision and my right eye is very poor. I had to have a surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes before the age of 2. Back in 2006, I had a stroke. I could not initially walk or speak. I had to go through many months of rehabilitation therapies to recover. I still sometimes have trouble getting words out but I’m much better now.
Hazel: I would not be able to tell if you hadn’t told me. I have even more respect for you for overcoming difficulties.
Thomas: Now as for the proudest moment in my career, there was this time when I was working for the Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. One of the areas I covered was radiation protection and I was assigned a case where a hospital worker falsified mammogram results. We are talking several hundred women. The hospital staffer wrote that all mammograms showed negative results without actually reading the images. I won the case and had the hospital required to re-perform all the mammograms free of charge. I also got a $900,000 civil penalty. And if they found any positive results, we kept the $900,000 in civil penalties but then were free to take the case to court. They were so lucky that the final results also showed all negatives, but the women were the truly fortunate ones.
After the conclusion of our interview, Thomas and I had a nice Italian lunch in Downtown Lewes on a street lined with quaint shops and restaurants. His awesome wife joined us and we had a great time chatting. Thomas, I want to thank you for spending time and sharing your legal knowledge with me. I’m also thankful that you are defending those who are helpless and in need. Thank you for all you do and have done for our society. I’m a subscriber to your legal blog now and I look forward to reading more insightful and educational blog entries soon!