Tennessee judges ignore Confederate monuments in their own courts

(Reuters) – The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled last week that it was not harmful for jurors to decide the fate of black people from inside a government jury room effectively dedicated to elders Fundamentally racist and slave-owning Confederate States.

The Aug. 16 opinion contradicts a ruling by another panel of the same court that granted a new trial to a black man, Tim Gilbert, in a separate case last December, based on jurors’ exposure to Confederate artifacts in the jury room.

The appeals court shied away from its duty to confront blatantly evident racism within the justice system in its most recent decision in Tennessee v. Barry Martin. Additionally, the court’s analysis could close the door to further appeals of potentially biased convictions, unless the decision is overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

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Martin plans to appeal the decision. Evan Baddour, a Tennessee attorney who represents Martin and has also represented Gilbert, declined to comment further, citing the status of the case. A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Attorney General told me the office could not comment on ongoing litigation.

Both cases involve the same jury room at Giles County Circuit Court in Pulaski, Tennessee, which coincidentally sits across from the former law offices where the Ku Klux Klan was founded in the 1860s.

The courthouse’s jury room was officially dedicated in the 1930s to the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a private organization that championed white supremacist views and erected Confederate monuments throughout the country.

UDC representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

For decades, the jury room featured an antique framed version of the Third National Flag of the Confederacy placed prominently in front of the door, in Martin’s opinion. There were also portraits of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General John C. Brown. In 2005, the door was inscribed with “UDC Room” and the UDC emblem – which also includes a Confederate flag.

The room was used in the trials of Martin and Gilbert. A state commission decided the memorabilia could be moved to a museum after the Gilbert ruling, the Tennessean reported in June. At present, the room is still a Confederate-themed UDC jury room, Giles County Attorney Lucy Henson told me Friday.

“As we sit here today, these objects are still there,” Henson said. Officials will move forward with the renovation once a new door has been installed, she said, adding that it will happen “overnight”.

The state appeals court ordered a new trial in the Gilbert case in December last year. The three-judge panel found that the memorabilia exposed jurors to harmful outside information, which violates the constitutional right to an impartial jury trial. The onus is on the government to prove the jurors were unaffected, not on Gilbert to show they were, the court found.

But in the latest decision, a different panel came to the opposite conclusion to the Gilbert case on the same issue regarding the same jury room. The court, in an opinion by Judge John W. Campbell, ruled unanimously against a new trial for Martin, who was convicted of drug charges in 2020.

First, the judges rejected the argument that they were bound to follow the previous decision of their colleagues. The Tennessee Supreme Court — which decided not to review the Gilbert ruling when the state appealed — had designated the opinion in that case “not for citation,” meaning the ruling is not necessarily binding. , Campbell wrote.

The court then went further.

“In terms of memories being inherently harmful, we wonder if the average citizen would recognize the portraits,” the UDC logo, or the Confederacy’s third national flag, Campbell wrote.

The Confederate battle flag is now a “controversial symbol”, in American society, “[h]However, the flag in this case is not the Confederate battle flag,” the court said.

In other words, the racist imagery within the courthouse — which the court ruled harmful in Gilbert’s case less than a year ago — is benign and non-discriminatory unless part of the public recognizes it. not, even if others do. And the court reached that conclusion even though the national flag at issue fully incorporates the admittedly racially oppressive Confederate battle flag.

Martin also argued that the memories violated the Giles County Court’s duty of judicial impartiality, but the court dismissed that point on a technicality: Martin’s trial attorney had not raised the issue in court. county court, so he couldn’t do it for the first time on appeal, Campbell wrote.

The court’s decision sidestepped the most important issues in the case and missed an easy opportunity to bolster judicial integrity and bolster public confidence in the courts.

It’s pretty obvious that jurors might be negatively swayed toward black defendants, and that black jurors might be hesitant to fully participate in the process, if they’re deliberating in a Confederate-themed jury room, as Tennessee pointed out. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in a brief in Gilbert’s case.

Other courts have already taken steps to address similar issues, including removing portraits of judicial officers such as Confederate sympathizers and slave owners that no longer reflect mainstream values.

The North Carolina Supreme Court in 2020 removed a huge portrait of a former chief justice who was infamous for his violence against slaves and black people and had advocated for such treatment in his legal decisions, according to a report by the state commission on the matter.

Mississippi in 2020 changed its state flag, which included a Confederate emblem, after City Judge Carlos Moore began removing it from the courtroom in protest in 2017, when John Browning, a former Texas Court of Appeals judge and legal partner at Spencer Fane, posed in a 2022 law review article.

A county judge in Virginia removed a portrait of Robert E. Lee from the courtroom in 2020 at the request of the defendant, The Washington Post reported in September of that year.

There is empirical evidence that exposure to Confederate symbology can evoke prejudice among Americans. The defense attorneys’ association pointed in its brief to psychological research published in 2010 that showed that exposure to the Confederate flag “can actually cause discrimination,” even among people with few prejudices.

The problems in the Gilbert and Martin cases will continue to arise for other Tennessee courthouses and in courthouses in other states, especially as Americans become more aware of the history of Confederate symbology. in public and state-sanctioned spaces across the country.

The court in the Martin case took a step back. Hopefully the Tennessee Supreme Court recognizes that the symbols will continue to provoke accusations of institutional racism and controversy in the legal process, especially as long as they are sanctioned by the courts themselves.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which is committed to integrity, independence and non-partisanship by principles of trust.

Hassan Kanou

Thomson Reuters

Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality before the law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting primarily on labor law. He lives in Washington, DC Contact Kanu at [email protected]

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