So-Called Side Bar

Going off topic here just a wee tad. I know that there are children out there who might not have had civics class yet and adults who might have forgotten theirs. So I just wanted to clarify something before we move on. 

When my father took the bench in the mid-70s, he was at that time one of a very small group of black judges nationwide. I am told that when he was appointed, he was actually the youngest black judge in the country, although I haven’t been able to verify that definitively. Here in the deep south, there were plenty of folks who didn’t think he had any place in the judiciary. Many would not have even recognized his judgeship as legitimate. But his appointment was real. It was official. It was final. And then it was reaffirmed by the citizens of this city and county in open elections. Five times, if I’m not mistaken. When he died on my birthday a few years ago, he was the longest serving judge in Memphis. He had sat in that chair in that courthouse wearing that black robe for longer than I had been alive. They say you need about 10,000 hours doing anything before you’re any good at it. Well, Pops was on the bench for roughly 10,000 days. Give or take. And that’s not including weekends, even though he often worked on weekends, setting bonds by phone so non-violent pre-trial defendants wouldn’t have to sit in jail until Monday morning.

Guns aren’t allowed in most courtrooms. But rumor has it that my dad kept a revolver stashed under that robe of his. I didn’t hear that until recently. I missed the chance to ask him, so I can’t confirm it for sure. But when we packed up his things, I did find an old .38 special, which I have on my table right now. And if that revolver did ever make its way into my dad’s courtroom, I imagine it was probably in response to the death threats he sometimes received. Perhaps it was for disgruntled litigants who might take their anger out on the court. Maybe he thought about all the Jim Crow holdouts who swore that people like my dad were judges in name only. Maybe that revolver hung around just in case any of those folks ever made up their minds to try and remove him from the bench by force. I can only wonder.

There’s one thing I do know for sure. My dad earned that seat. He busted his ass not only to get it and keep it but to deserve it. Outside the courtroom, I’m sure lots of people still called him “n*gger.” Inside the courtroom, you called him “Judge.” Or “Your Honor.” Or “Sir.” Otherwise, you got escorted the f*ck out by the very same sheriff’s deputies who just a few short decades earlier might have been tasked with making sure my dad’s kids didn’t go to the same schools as their kids.

In this country, we have good judges and bad judges. We have well-qualified judges and poorly-qualified judges. We have left-leaning judges and right-leaning judges and centrist judges. We have textualists and originalists and activists. Experienced judges and inexperienced judges. Novices and veterans. Elegant writers and sloppy writers. Crack logicians and those who take the analytical scenic route. We have big shot judges deciding historic cases in the federal appellate courts, and we have small-town local judges like my dad, handling petty crimes and bond hearings. The courts will issue opinions we exalt and opinions we decry. That’s all part of the beauty of America. But there’s one thing we do not have in this country. We do not have “so-called” judges.

We also don’t have judges who are inherently unqualified or biased just because of their heritage or ethnicity, by the way. Nor do we have judges who are predisposed to rendering unfair decisions just because of their religion. I appreciate that folks tried to clean up those thinly-veiled suggestions after-the-fact, but by then the damage was already done. So yeah, um, no. Just needed to clear that up. Been holding it in for a minute now.

Oh, and one more thing, for the civics junkies out there. In point of fact, yes, the powers of the president WILL be questioned, as well they should be. Even where the president is 100% right and justified and well-intentioned and legally-authorized, his actions WILL be questioned. Perhaps the president’s exercise of power will be wholly vindicated and emerge completely unscathed. If so, great. But make no mistake. It WILL be questioned. That’s kinda the point of all this “free press,” “checks and balances,” “independent judiciary” mumbo jumbo.

I would gnaw off my own arm with my own teeth to get one more conversation with my dad right now.

– tgj

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