A federal judge in Texas will be on the receiving end of a lawsuit. A group of civil rights organizations have filed a misconduct complaint against Judge Edith H. Jones of Houston, a federal magistrate on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In a February 2013 speech given at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Jones claimed blacks and Hispanics were predisposed to violence, leading them to be more prone to commit violent offenses. She also said death sentences are a beneficial service to defendants because it encourages them to make peace with God.
Representatives of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Mexican Legal Assistance Program and other organizations signed the complaint, citing a severe case of misconduct that impacted her ability to make unbiased rulings.
Judge Carl E. Stewart, the first black circuit chief judge, will make the ultimate decision in this case, but one of the defenses Jones might use is that she was speaking outside of the courtroom and has access to the First Amendment.
Too bad the First Amendment won’t protect this racist lawmaker or others. The Constitution grants all American citizens the right to free speech, but there are limits to all freedoms. Several legal scholars agree.
Charles W. Wolfram, a retired Cornell Law School professor, said Jones’ words should concern all defendants, prosecutors and legal experts.
“If I were a parent of a black with borderline IQ accused in a capital case, would I be distressed in knowing that Judge Jones was sitting on my case?” he asked. “Yes, I would. She seems to have made up her mind on these issues. She is slanted. That is the whole point of the impartiality requirement.”
Stephen Giller, an ethics scholar at New York University, agrees.
“If a judge were to say that during sentencing, that sentence would be vacated,” he said. “It suggests that she believes she is helping the accused by giving a death sentence. That is totally inappropriate.”
Federal judges must adhere to a Code of Conduct. The third canon of the conduct code is “a judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.”
The code explicitly states:
An appearance of impropriety occurs when reasonable minds, with knowledge of all the relevant circumstances disclosed by a reasonable inquiry, would conclude that the judge’s honesty, integrity, impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge is impaired. Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges. A judge must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. This prohibition applies to both professional and personal conduct. A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny and accept freely and willingly restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen.
Jones clearly violated this ethical standard and the Constitution – which she knows so well – will not protect her from the consequences.
Chime in Clutchettes. Do you think lawmakers should be protected by the First Amendment?