Thursday, June 18, 2009

Judge's Campaign Speech Draws Sanction, Dissents

On motions for rehearing by a disciplined judge and its Commission on Judicial Performance, the Mississippi Supreme Court withdrew an earlier opinion and suspended the now-former judge from office for one year. The allegations involved a speech before constituents in which the judge "expressed his disdain for the local Causacian mayor and his African-American appointees" and said:

White folks don't praise you [African-Americans] unless you're a damn fool. Unless they think they can use you. If you have your own mind and know what you're doing, they don't want you around.

The court majority found the statements sanctionable in that the judge's "disparaging insults went well beyond the realm of protected campaign speech expressing views on disputed legal and political issues and discussing the qualifications of the judicial office for which [he] was campaigning." The court majority rejected charges of perjury as that allegation had not been formally brought in the commission's charges against the judge. The court majority  further held that it had the authority to order removal of a judge who was no longer in office, overruling prior contrary authority.

There is a dissent from Justice Kitchens that condemns the comment but would not impose discipline. The justice finds that the statements were protected by the First Amendment: "his comments addressed a political issue, and not just any political issue, but the seminal political issue of this State's history: race."

A concurring/dissenting opinion of Justice Dickinson states that the judge's "malevolent, racist words should be offensive to all rational, fair-minded people. As judicial officers, however, we are required to follow the law. With the utmost respect to the justices comprising the majority, I cannot conclude that this Court today is following the law." He would hold that the state is powerless to punish speech of a qualified judicial candidate in an election year on a disputed political issue. The statement at issue here is thus protected under his formulation.  (Mike Frisch)

Judicial Ethics and the Courts | Permalink

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