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Judge David W. Crosland III, an immigration judge with the U.S. Department of Justice and civil rights activist, dies



Judge David W. Crosland III, an immigration judge with the U.S. Department of Justice who early in his career in the 1960s served with the department’s Civil Rights Division and was part of the team of lawyers that investigated and tried cases involving the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, and spent his life tirelessly fighting for immigrants and the homeless, died of cardiac arrest Aug. 1 at his Severna Park home. He was 85.

David Woolley Crosland, son of Circuit Court Judge David W. Crosland Jr., and Marie Crosland, an animal welfare activist who was the founder of the Montgomery Humane Society, was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama.

Judge Crosland came of age during the time of the segregated South when white society was largely lawlessly intolerant of the needs and rights of African American citizens. His familial and geographic heritage forever shaped and launched him on his life’s work as a lawyer where he could right generational wrongs and ensure that Black people and all citizens were entitled to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

“To say that I grew up in a courthouse is not too big a stretch in that my grandfather was a probate judge, and later, my father was a Circuit Court judge in Montgomery, Alabama,” Judge Crosland wrote in autobiographical notes.

After graduating from Sidney Lanier High School, Judge Crosland earned a bachelor’s of science degree in agriculture from Auburn University in 1959, and his law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1966, and then joined the Justice Department, which was then led by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

“I was moved to go to law school and then into the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department by the killing of 14 people in the South in a period of two or three years. In most of those cases, there were no state prosecutions,” Judge Crosland wrote in an autobiographical profile.

“Three of those killed were Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. They were killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi, after being arrested the afternoon they drove up to investigate the fire bombing of a Black church,” he wrote. “I was privileged to be one of the six lawyers to prepare and try these cases against the 14 Klansmen, including the sheriff and the deputy sheriff, indicted for their deaths.”

“David had a remarkable life as a Southerner and had been involved in the civil rights movement,” said his former wife, Page Dahl Crosland, a former Alabama Journal and Birmingham News newspaperwoman, who later became press secretary for Alaska Sen. Ernest H. Gruening. “When his father found out that David had gone to work for the Civil Rights Division, he wept.”

Judge David W. Crosland III was a former director of the Atlanta Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Judge David W. Crosland III was a former director of the Atlanta Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“I chose to be assigned to the southern most counties of Mississippi, because it was the location of the most violence perpetrated by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,” Judge Crosland wrote. “At the time, the Civil Rights Division was divided by geographic regions and not by areas of law enforcement. … Thus, I had the responsibility to investigate and recommend litigation in all of those areas, but the primary focus was on criminal activity, voting rights and school desegregation. Most of our information and tips came through the development of trust with poor Black farmers, who risked their lives talking with us.”

Judge Crosland’s first assignment had an auspicious beginning during the tense and dangerous days of the 1960s civil rights movement in the South.

“My first trip to Mississippi was to argue a motion before the notorious Federal District Judge [William Harold] Cox. He had once called African Americans chimpanzees,” he wrote.

During his time in Neshoba County, he also monitored voting discrimination and desegregation of schools, and was an observer at civil rights marches when there was a heightened threat of Klan violence.

The Justice Department sent him in 1967 and 1968 to Detroit when the city experienced two major riots, and where he became involved in the prosecution of a white Detroit police officer and National Guard members for killing three people.

Judge David W. Crosland III was part of a team of lawyers that investigated and tried cases involving the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi.
Judge David W. Crosland III was part of a team of lawyers that investigated and tried cases involving the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi.

In 1968, Judge Crosland left the Justice Department and became director of the Atlanta Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, organizing lawyers from the city’s largest and most prestigious firms to take on pro bono cases that involved discrimination.

From 1973 to 1977, he and the former director of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society established a private law practice. His partner specialized in environmental matters, and he focused on civil rights cases.

“He taught me about white privilege and anti-racism work before I had these words,” said his daughter, Dr. Catherine Page Crosland, of Washington, who is medical director for Homeless Outreach Services and Homeless Outreach Development, and manages more than 10 homeless outreach clinics. “I thought of him as my Atticus Finch.”

Attorney General Griffin B. Bell appointed Judge Crosland in 1977 as general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, where he created the special litigation unit on Nazi War Crimes, “which investigated and brought denaturalization and deportation cases against persons who had committed war crimes during World War II,” he wrote.

When the INS commissioner resigned in 1979, Judge Crosland was appointed acting commissioner, a position he held for two years during which time the Iranian hostage crisis erupted and “I was charged with developing a system to screen all arriving Iranians and screening all Iranians in the United States as to their status,” he wrote. “In May 1980, the Mariel Cuban boatlift started and lasted over six weeks. I was charged with directing the processing of 126,500 Cubans who arrived by boat in Key West.”

He added: “During my time as acting commissioner, I appeared before Congress numerous times to either address routine matters such as funding or crises such as the Iranian crisis or the Cuban boatlift and the large influx of Haitians in South Florida.”

Following the 1980 presidential election, Judge Crosland returned to private practice when he became a partner in Ober, Kaler Grimes & Shriver, and then Crosland, Strand, Freeman & Mayock.

Judge Crosland returned to government service in 1997 when Attorney General Janet W. Reno appointed him as an immigration judge in Otay Mesa, California. He later became an assistant chief immigration judge for several courts, as well as a temporary member of the Board of Immigration Appeals.

From 2009 to 2014, he was a member of the bench of the Arlington (Virginia) Immigration Court, and then joined its court in Baltimore, and had not retired at his death.

Jason Dzubow, a Washington immigration attorney who specializes in asylum cases and is a partner in the firm of Dzubow & Pilcher PLLC, appeared many times before Judge Crosland during the past 15 years.

“His judicial style was that he was very fair and right down the middle, and I can’t say I won all of my cases, though thankfully, he did grant many of my cases and helped many of my clients, but I can say that my clients and I were always treated respectfully, and even if we were denied, we received a fair hearing,” Mr. Dzubow said. “But if you lost a case before Judge Crosland, there was a legitimate reason.”

He described Judge Crosland as being “very soft-spoken and at times hard to hear. He was so quiet that interpreters would often ask, ‘What did he say?’ but he was quiet, kind and patient.”

He said Judge Crosland was known for his judicial efficiency.

“At the beginning of a case, he’d spend 15 minutes outlining it and making a framework,” he said. “And then he did what a good judge should do, you never felt disrespected, and that he respected both you and your client.”

In addition to his work on the bench, Judge Crosland, at various times was an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and UDC David A. Clarke School of Law in Washington.

As chair of one of the District of Columbia Bar Association’s committees, Judge Crosland lent his compassion for others when he reached out to fellow members of the bar suggesting how “lawyers could use our legal tool box to assist our homeless neighbors,” wrote Patricia Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, in an email.

“The group of us who came together formed what we called the ‘DC Bar Ad Hoc Committee for the Homeless,’ of which David was chair,” Ms. Fugere wrote. “The AD Hoc Committee launched a pilot program sending volunteer layers into the community to set up our little intake table at shelters, dining programs and day centers. That pilot program ultimately became the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.”

Judge Crosland enjoyed cooking and preparing Southern dishes such as ham, red beans and rice, collard greens and his much-loved lemon ice box pie, family members said. He also liked listening to classical music, sailing, and visiting the beach at Topsail Island, North Carolina, with his favorite dog Rocky.

It was his wishes that no formal services be held, and requested that he be cremated and his ashes spread by immediate family at Big Sur on California’s Central Coast.

In an instructional note, Judge Crosland had written: “Each time I have visited Big Sur, I wept at the sight of such timeless beauty. … The absolute over-powering beauty of Big Sur in and of itself tells us that whatever we may think that we accomplished in life is irrelevant to the power of that place. Big Sur is my spiritual homeland.”

In addition to his former wife and daughter, Judge Crosland is survived by his estranged wife, Laurie Poss of Maryland; two sons, David Dahl Crosland of Washington and Shane Crosland of Australia; and two grandchildren.

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