Judge Edith Jones: When Federal Judges Speak Their Minds
What does it mean when a federal circuit judge airs her most deeply-held racist convictions in a speech? Is it illegal? Can she get fired? And how the hell did she get into a position of power in the first place?
A collection of civil rights groups, professional responsibility advocates, and law school professors have filed a federal lawsuit against Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones, alleging that statements she made during a speech at the University of Pennsylvania Law School were “prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts, undermines public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and creates a strong appearance of impropriety.” In her speech, a “best-of” collection of the past century’s most popular racist legal tropes, Judge Jones asserted that black and Latina/o people are involved in violent crime more often than whites, that Mexicans would prefer being on death row in the United States to serving time in a Mexican prison (Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2005), and that a death sentence provides a service to those convicted of capital crimes, since most require imminent death to “make their peace with God”. Judge Jones sits on the Fifth Circuit, one of the eleven U. S. Circuit Courts of Appeal. These courts are second only to the U.S. Supreme Court in importance and influence. Circuit Court judges are appointed for life by a President pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Judge Jones was appointed by President Reagan in 1985, and was discussed as a possible Supreme Court nominee during both Bush 41′s and Bush 43′s presidential administrations. This has been your daily reminder that elections have consequences.
Since Judge Jones’ statements came to light, articles about this lawsuit are accompanied by the predictable comments-section whining about Free Speech (!1!11!eleventy!1!!) in the learned jurist’s defense. As usual, however, the self-styled advocates making free speech arguments fail to note the essential point that private citizens and groups, not the U.S. Government, filed the lawsuit, so the lawsuit itself can’t be “censorship” within the meaning of the First Amendment. Freedom of speech means both the freedom for you to say stupid, racist nonsense and the freedom for me to write all of that down on paper, include affidavits, file it in federal court, and serve you with it. Good morning! Happy Lawsuit!
More importantly, though, certain people with certain jobs don’t get to just say whatever they want. Some, like judges, are limited in their expression because the importance of their job demands it. Judges are living representations of this country’s court system, which is (for some reason still) empowered with the ability to take the life of a citizen of this country in response to a crime. Judge Jones is vested with the extreme gravity of dispensing this ultimate justice, and, as such, she has responsibilities beyond those of ordinary citizens, and even ordinary lawyers. The Code of Conduct for United States Judges outlines these heightened responsibilities, which include that a judge uphold the integrity of the judiciary, avoid both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety, and perform the duties of the office impartially, in order to uphold public confidence in the justice system’s fairness. The Complainants allege that Judge Jones’ statements at the University of Pennsylvania constitute a violation of those provisions of the Code. It’s pretty clear that they do, since her statements target all non-white people, and black people especially, as violent criminals.
So, are the Complainants going to win this lawsuit? In a word, no. The commentary of the Code, which is part of the Code for all purposes, provides that it is not intended as a basis for civil liability or criminal prosecution, the way a law would be. So, even if Judge Jones’ conduct violated every letter of the Code, that gives the Complainants no basis for a lawsuit. The Code, however, does provide for disciplinary action for violators, up to and including impeachment by Congress, but it’s an uphill battle. So, the smart money says that the Complainants filed a lawsuit based on the Code in the first place in an attempt to drum up enough public outrage so that when the complaint is dismissed they can leverage that outrage in the disciplinary proceedings that may follow. After all, nobody is sure what “compelled to a disciplinary proceeding” means, but everybody knows what “slapped with a lawsuit” means. However, it is vanishingly rare for federal judges to be formally disciplined, even for behavior like that of Judge Jones, which is likely to undermine people’s confidence in her ability as a jurist. The publicity surrounding this lawsuit is probably the Complainants’ best chance at a public reprimand before Judge Jones goes back to doing what she does best: holding the lives of accused people in her hands and attempting to streamline the process from the courtroom to the electric chair.
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