In February, seven U.S. Marshals showed up at Paul Aker's home in Houston and arrested him. His crime? Failing to pay a nearly three-decades-old student loan debt. The story went viral, and caught the attention of Fusion reporter Rob Wile. He and his colleagues were curious: if this was happening in Houston – where there were 25 arrest warrants for outstanding student debt in 2015 – how prevalent was it elsewhere?
Well, not at all, actually. Fusion launched an investigation into some of the nation's largest metropolitan areas and found that Houston was the only place where these arrests were happening.
"We checked in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami – where I'm based – and Boston. We found zero arrests that were occurring in this manner. Zero. Which was shocking," Wile says.
They found that all of these arrests could be traced back to one man: Judge Lynn Hughes. He's the United States District Judge for the Southern District of Texas who's made headlines before for his less-than-delicate words aimed at prosecutors. The Reagan-appointed judge wanted to make sure that those people that were delinquent on their loans would show up in his court – and took measures to make sure they did.
"He refused to go on the record with us but he told us we could look at the transcripts and the answers would sort of be there," Wile says. "And indeed what we found was he took it personally when these people got court summonses to show up to his courthouse and failed to show up to court."
Wile says that sending Marshals after people that fail to appear isn't particularly common.
"Now, in most other districts, if you ignore a court summons, you usually don't get the Marshals sent after you – especially in a student debt case," Wile says. "Usually what happens is the case will continue sort of without your presence and your wages are going to be garnished. But Judge Hughes wants to see you in person, and he is not afraid to send the U.S. Marshals to your home."
Another thing that Wile and his colleagues noticed is that may of the people who were being arrested for these loan debts had some things in common – most were poor African Americans. Many were getting by on Social Security and disability benefits.
"We met with two victims – if you want to call them that – of these actions by his courthouse where they received early morning raids similar to Mr. Akers," Wile says. "But these were basically poor African American folks with very little means, who all of a sudden had three or four armed U.S. Marshals show up telling them, 'Well, in fact, you haven't committed a crime actually, you just haven't paid a student loan that you took out 30 years ago, but we're still going to have to arrest you and take you down to court for that.'"
But even if Judge Hughes' actions may raise some eyebrows, he probably won't be going anywhere, Wile says. That's even considering that he's been called out for his behavior, including making racist remarks, before.
"Federal magistrates like Judge Hughes have extreme leeway to conduct themselves how they wish, and to remove a federal judge actually requires an act of Congress," Wile says. "So at this point we haven't gotten any feedback what moves, if any, the justice department would take, or if any kind of reprimand would be issued. But the bottom line is, Judge Hughes isn't going anywhere, and its not clear if he's going to change his ways anytime soon."
Web post prepared by Alexandra Hart.