The verdict is in — African American judges from Detroit, Michigan to Jackson, Mississippi are being judged unfairly by the very systems of justice they serve. And Black people in both places are being disinfranchised as a result.
In Mississippi, the Department of Justice has sued the state to stop efforts disenfranchising citizens living in Jackson – a majority Black city and state capital – over a new law that allows judges to be appointed rather than elected by its residents. Black votes are stripped from Black folks who undoubtedly elect Black judges to represent them on the bench.
Drive just a few hours north to Michigan and we find a similar situation centered around Detroit; another majority Black city, with Black votes and Black judges getting a raw deal. Here, activists have noted in the last four years, 80 percent of all the disciplinary actions against judges have been levied against African American judges.
Eighty-percent is an alarming statistic. Clearly, justice for Black judges is not blind. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone expects judges to follow the same laws as everyone else. They serve as arbiters of the law, sit in judgment over defendants and settle civil disputes between the rich and poor alike; they should be policed and held to a higher standard for their conduct in and out of court. But 80 percent of all the disciplinary cases in Michigan are centered on Black judges?
But 80-percent is a ridiculous statistic when we consider only 16-percent of the state’s judiciary is made up of Black judges. And just like we found out how policing tended to disproportionately focus on Black citizens, this statistic is strong evidence the same thing is happening to Black judges.
Yes, we like to put people on pedestals and are often disappointed when they don’t live up to our lofty expectations. Priests, politicians, movie stars, athletes and all those lifted by fame or fortune fall from grace from time to time. Judges are no different. Putting on a black robe doesn’t make them infallible. They are people prone to make poor choices in everything from court rulings to personal conduct at times. And the news reports of shenanigans we have seen judges of all colors engaged in from the U.S. Supreme Court on down detailing of a litany of egregious actions on and off the bench prove this to be true.
However, what is not true is that somehow Black judges are more prone to engage in actions that break the rules. In Michigan, people are concerned Black judges are being disproportionally investigated and punished. Civil rights activists, lawyers, and faith leaders are raising their voices in protest. Letters about the disparity have come from the community’s leading voices: the ACLU of Michigan, the Detroit NAACP Branch, the Black Women Lawyers Association, the Association of Black Judges of Michigan, Michigan Clergy Connect and other local leaders/concerned citizens. Even Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) has taken note of the issue.
In a June 15, 2023, letter to the state supreme court, Gov. Whitmer notes the disparity and writes, “I care deeply about advancing equity and diversity across government, including on the bench, because I believe that a government that can better reflect its people, can better serve its people.”
She’s right. Representation on the judicial bench matters. And that truism is under attack from the same forces working to dismantle progress we’ve made as a society in everything from civil rights to criminal justice reforms after hundreds of years of institutionalized racism, codified by law, born in slavery and bred by Jim Crow
80-Percent of All Punishment is at Black Judges: Nothing to See Here. Move Along.
In response to the complaints, the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission defended its position by saying there is no disparate treatment between white and Black judicial defendants because when you add in the number of white judges who choose to retire before being handed down a decision, the numbers are equal. Still, the commission says it’s conducting an independent audit to be sure.
Translation: we didn’t do anything wrong, just give us a minute to get our story straight. This have your cake and eat it too decision by the MJC is both dismissive and tone deaf to the concerns raised. Eighty percent of all the judges persecuted are Black. No audit report can explain that away by coming up with numbers showing how most of the White judges quietly leave when they get notice of investigative proceedings while Black judges fight on to be vindicated.
Black judges have little recourse but to defend themselves. Where are they going to go? Nationally, only 4.5 percent of all the lawyers out there are Black. Leaving the bench under a cloud of suspicion doesn’t make finding employment likely. In fact, getting booted from the bench anywhere in the country for misconduct is exceedingly rare making the prospect of a Black judge removed from the bench returning to a successful career as a lawyer even more challenging. A 2020 investigation by Reuters determined nationally “9 of every 10 judges were allowed to return to the bench after they were sanctioned for misconduct…” Ironically, shortly after this piece grabbed national headlines, is the period when critics note Michigan started dropping the hammer on Black judges.
And if it’s true most White judges cut and run when facing investigations, then that is a sad indictment on the system policing judges. They’d rather not participate in a process likely to find them guilty at the end of the day.
If White judges, as the MJC says in its defense, are walking away believing the system used to determine their innocence or guilt in a complaint is rigged against THEM, then how is the public supposed to have confidence Black judges are being treated fairly in the same process? They won’t.
We’ve had police reform, sentencing reform and bail reform – all designed to address injustices, inequities, disparities and treat people more fairly. Judges are people too. It’s time for leadership in Michigan to publicly engage in judicial reform, revamp the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission and address the inequities in the system that polices, tries and sentences judges. And it’s time we all stand up for the people in Jackson, Mississippi who are having their judges stripped away by a draconian law robbing them of their right to vote for who will sit on the bench in their own city and settle matters of local law.
The system we have created to elect, appoint and police judges; judges us too. Wherever we live as Americans, we can’t expect a justice system that treats judges unfairly to then turn around and treat us fairly in court.
Everyone deserves to be treated fairly by the court system – even judges.
Greg Bowens is a National Contributing Columnist for BLAC Media based in metro Detroit. He’s also a public/media relations professional, political consultant, civil rights activist, co-founder and past president of the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP Branch.