We all know that Lady Justice is supposed to be blind in dispensing justice. We also all know that is not the case when it comes to judging minorities, and especially people of color. However, we have now encountered a surprising new twist on an old theme. It appears that Lady Justice is not even blind in judging the courtroom skills of a black judge, least while that seems to be based upon the decision made by the nine-member (eight of them white) Mississippi State Supreme Court.
Take the case of Lee County Mississippi Justice Court Judge Rickey Thompson, for example. Judge Thompson is black, and in May 2015 he was relieved of his position – to which he was elected three times and which he held for more than 10 years – by an overwhelmingly white court.
An article in The Daily Beast by Justin Glawe, details the story “the first and only black judge in the county’s 149-year history. In May, the Mississippi Supreme Court removed him from the post that he’s held since 2004 over a slew of misconduct allegations.”
According to charges filed against Thompson, they included speaking up for a bail bondsman who had been suspended from operating by a sheriff, preventing a drug court defendant from choosing her own attorney over one the judge advocated for, keeping some people in court longer than allowed by state law, and wrongly incarcerating four people. As Glawe explains, Thompson created the drug court in the first place, having seen too many people being locked up for petty drug offences, such as marijuana possession. In 2009, “after much negotiation and arm-twisting, he convinced the county to start what would become his drug court.”
The most serious charge is regarding the four people he locked up for contempt. Had Thompson not created his drug court, these four would had been given serious time for their drug offenses. So, in part, he was being kicked off the bench for not dishing out harsher penalties.Thompson admits to a learning curve: “When I first started, obviously there was a learning curve, but you see some of the bad things that are going on…And as people got to know me and know that I was going to be fair, that I wasn’t going to be a rubber stamp, that’s when the trouble started.”
He started to receive complaints from fellow judges, who began refusing to send suspects, mostly black, to drug court once it was up and running. Not coincidentally, these fellow judges were all white. Apparently under Mississippi law, sheriffs decide which judges defendants are brought before. When Thompson acquitted a black defendant that Sheriff Johnson, the local sheriff, wanted convicted, he just stopped bringing him defendants – furthered by the fact that Johnson’s deputies refused to serve warrants Thompson issued.
Charges were brought against Thompson in November 2013 by the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance and after an investigation, they recommended that he be dismissed from the bench, and the state’s highest court obliged in May 2015.
The irony is that according to a 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts report, “Mississippi enacted sentencing and corrections reforms that place it at the forefront of states employing research-driven criminal justice policies to produce a greater public safety return on corrections spending.” Of course, Mississippi is only in the forefront if the implementation of sentencing reform if it is not implemented by a black judge hearing charges against black defendants in a county named for Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Judge Thompson has sued in federal court in Mississippi to be reinstated, and in the interim he ran again for reelection and beat five competitors, earning 55% of the vote. As Glawe notes, “It’s unknown whether Thompson will be allowed to run in the general election, though the county election commission cites a state statute that bars public officials who have been removed from office from running again.” It is a clear sign of how deep racial prejudices are ingrained in some places in America, and more evidence of why the BlackLivesMatter movement is so important to the health of American civil society. Such a flagrant disregard for the spirit of the justice system and the way it has been used to perpetrate racial suppression is on full display in this Mississippi county, and we cannot allow it to continue.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.