Judge with strong Israel ties refuses to step down in case against Palestinian-American

Rasmea Yousef Odeh (Arab American Action Network)

Last Thursday, 31 July, Federal Judge Paul D. Borman refused to recuse himself from presiding over the upcoming trial of Rasmea Yousef Odeh.

In October 2013, Odeh, a Palestinian-American community leader from Chicago, was accused of lying on her immigration forms by failing to disclose a criminal conviction meted out by an Israeli military court in 1969.

Odeh is pleading not guilty to the charge, and will argue that the conviction was based on a confession extracted through torture, including sexual assault and rape, that led to a diminished capacity at the time she submitted her immigration and naturalization forms.

Odeh’s defense had submitted the motion for recusal on 14 July. Pointing to Borman’s lifelong activism on behalf of Israel, the defense attorneys argued that his bias would preclude a fair and impartial trial for Odeh.

A significant component of Odeh’s defense will be based on demonstrating that there is an inherent lack of due process and fairness in the Israeli military court system — which has a conviction rate of 99.7 percent, according to 2010 data leaked to the Israeli paper Haaretz.

While the motion to recuse was largely based on information contained in a biography of Borman that appeared in the Jewish Federation of Detroit’s 2007 annual report, the argument was focused exclusively on Borman’s political stance toward Israel.

Borman was featured in the report because he had been given the Federation’s “highest honor,” the Fred M. Butzel Award. The biography dedicates considerable space to praising Borman’s work in Israel, stating that his first trip to Israel had been with his parents in 1955 and that he had been “instrumental in bringing hundreds of Detroiters to Israel” throughout the 1980s as well as a delegation of Michigan legislators in 1990.

The defense motion argued that Borman’s pro-Israeli bias could prejudice him against Odeh’s defense.

But Borman rejected the defense argument, characterizing it as “rank speculation” based on his religious beliefs.

He also stated that his sponsorship of trips to Israel throughout the 1980s and in 1990 had occurred before his appointment to the bench and all trips to Israel since were as a tourist. Borman portrayed the extent of his work with the Jewish Federation of Detroit as supporting programs that alleviated hunger and promoted African American-Jewish and Arab-Jewish relations.

Borman’s opinion states: “My relationship to my faith and my heritage through my activity on behalf of the Detroit Jewish Federation, reads nothing like the innuendo and rank speculation that infects Defendant’s motion.” The law of recusal does not consider religious convictions a valid basis for questioning impartiality.

At the hearing on 31 July, Borman told the court that he had finished his ruling only ten minutes before walking into the courtroom and that he had written his opinion before the hearing preempted any opportunity for oral arguments.

“It is not about if he feels he can be fair and impartial. It is about if an objective observer can see him as fair and impartial,” lead attorney for Odeh, Michael Deutsch, told media, including The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, in a briefing outside the courtroom.

After Borman issued his ruling, defense attorneys submitted a request for another hearing at which clinical psychologist Mary Fabri could testify. As part of the defense’s motion to allow evidence of Odeh’s brutal torture while in Israeli custody into the trial, Fabri submitted an affidavit detailing Odeh’s treatment and the subsequent trauma from which she suffered for years and possibly when she applied for immigration in 1995.

“We are hoping to present an expert testifying to her torture while in prison and that she is suffering from post traumatic stress, but there is a question whether the judge will allow it before the jury,” Deutsch told dozens of supporters who had gathered on the sidewalk outside the US courthouse in downtown Detroit. “If it is denied, he will be stopping her from mounting a defense.”

As of now, however, the judge has only scheduled one hearing on 2 September to take place before the trial begins on 8 September. It is likely that Borman will issue rulings on pending motions before the next status hearing, so as to give prosecutors and defense attorneys adequate time to prepare for the start of trial.

In the meantime, supporters of Odeh are urging people to keep the pressure up. Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network, of which Odeh is associate director, told The Electronic Intifada that the reasons for maintaining heightened scrutiny of the case is to “put everything on the public record as much as possible.”

“All of us being here is as important as my work in the court,” Deutsch told supporters. “When the judge sees you filling the courtroom bearing witness, it makes a difference.”

Editor’s note: this story was edited since original publication to make clear that the conviction rate in Israeli military courts applies to the year 2010.




As Israel is a geo-political entity (not a religion!), and zionism is an ideology (not a religion!), Borman should be able to realize that whatever his religion may be, his words and deeds with regard to Israel are wholly political, whether or not religiously inspired to some degree. Recuse yourself sir! It is impossible for him to be 'fair and impartial' if he cannot understand the facts!

Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver's picture

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.