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Bryce W. Ashby

Bryce W. Ashby is an attorney with Donati Law, PLLC, and the board chair of Latino Memphis. 

Michael J. LaRosa

Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

Partial judges among us

By Published: May 08, 2019 5:40 PM CT

About 100 years ago, two murders in South Braintree, Massachusetts, captivated our nation and the world. Two Italian immigrants – Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti – were accused, convicted of the crimes and executed in a Massachusetts electric chair in 1927.

The judge in the case, Webster Thayer, famously referred to the two as “those anarchist bastards” when bragging how he had denied their motions for a new trial. Fifty years after their execution, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis issued an official state proclamation, declaring that the two men had been unfairly tried and convicted.  

We depend on both impartiality and appearance of impartiality in our judiciary system; the judiciary is a co-equal branch of government (together with the executive and Congress) and the men and women who mete out justice (judges) are supposed to be intelligent, impartial and thoughtful.

As our institutions mature over time, we would hope that our judiciary becomes more impartial, more dispassionate and less political than the bad old days of South Braintree, Massachusetts.

The 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision along political lines in Bush v. Gore shook the public’s confidence in an institution that was supposed to be above the fray. President Trump’s frequent attacks on judges, labeling them as partisans based on who nominated them, has done little to renew confidence in the judiciary, but did inspire a sharp rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts.

<strong>Bryce Ashby and Michael LaRosa</strong>

Bryce Ashby and Michael LaRosa

Roberts, who understands the critical need for public confidence in the court's ability to function, declared, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

Right here in Memphis, as reported in The Commercial Appeal, we have our own legal challenges, a sort of local version of an unrestrained judiciary. Judge Jim Lammey of the Memphis Criminal Court was elected judge 13 years ago and is now 61 years old. The judge has a habit of reposting vile postings that appear on the internet, on Facebook. We can’t confirm, based on his Facebook habits, that he’s anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, but he’s failed to demonstrate the type of restraint and prudence required for his position, instead entering into a dark world of conspiracy, hatred and anger.  

To carry out the essential duties they have been appointed or elected to carry out, judges must exercise dispassionate restraint and refrain from re-posting controversial subject matter on Facebook. It’s that simple. They can post birthday photos, videos of kittens and grandchildren. Why would a judge, who sits in judgment of individuals and determines whether they spend time, or not, incarcerated, share (as Judge Lammey did recently) a Facebook post from “The Comical Conservative”? The post is of a cartoonish drawing, depicting a man with a mustache wearing an LA Dodgers cap, sneaking under barbed wire toward LA. The caption: “If 11 million illegal aliens can help our economy, why didn’t they help their own economy?” More troubling, the judge has reposted articles referring to Muslim immigrants as “foreign mud.” 

We understand that the Judge did not write or originate these messages, but why would he share such nonsense for the whole world to see?  This behavior clearly calls into question his suitability to sit in judgment of others – particularly people who seem to be the preferred subjects of his repostings: Hispanics, undocumented persons and Muslims, among others.

This case is especially worrisome right now, as the administration in Washington attacks, openly, deliberately and with gusto, undocumented persons, and those seeking asylum here in our nation. Those of us who have already lost faith in the executive branch are holding out hope that the other two branches of government, the judiciary and Congress, will step in and save us from ourselves. 

But in the face of such unprecedented challenges to the very foundations of our democracy, it is up to us, the citizens, to push back against the type of recklessness and irresponsibility displayed by Judge Lammey. We either step in and act, or live through the words of John Dos Passos: “America,” the great thinker, reflecting on the Sacco/Vanzetti case, wrote in 1937, “our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul.”                    

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at pburch@dailymemphian.com.

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Jim Lammey

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