One Kentucky judge filed suit against his oversight panel, because his free speech has caused a legal firestorm to erupt in Louisville.
Judge Stevens contends that the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission is violating his First Amendment right to freedom of speech after he made controversial commentary from the bench and on Facebook.
So, the Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens has taken the step of filing a federal lawsuit against the Commission and its members in their official capacity.
The suit requests that a federal judge order the Commission to cease its activities against his First Amendment protected free speech, and to cease actions that Judge Stevens claims are probably in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause of the Constitution too.
The Judge’s unusual federal lawsuit you can see below, notes that prosecutor Tom Wine asked for a new, all white jury after a racially mixed panel acquitted a criminal suspect named Doss.
The Commonwealth attorney motioned for a certification of law, Stevens characterized thusly, “the matter is inappropriately captioned as the Commonwealth v. James Doss. The matter is more appropriately captioned the Commonwealth v. All Black Defendants.”
Continuing to plead that:
“The purpose of Judge Stevens’ commentary regarding the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney was to address his actions in pursuing a certification of law after a black defendant was acquitted of all charges against him by a racially diverse jury.
The particulars of the Doss’ matter were immaterial to Judge Stevens’ commentary regarding the Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney’s action in pursuing a certification of law following an acquittal challenging the racial composition of the jury and insisting upon a jury panel of forty white jurors and one black juror.”
Because of those comments the Commission sent a notice to Stevens that they plan to, “sanction, suspend or remove” him from his judicial post as a judge.
Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., stated that Stevens:
“Appears to flout the directives of the Code of Judicial Conduct, creating a social-media firestorm calculated to aggrandize himself by exploiting the deep-seated and widespread distrust of the criminal-justice system by minority communities.”
Facebook even gets judges in trouble.
“When a black man is acquitted and then the prosecutor asserts his right to an all white jury panel, those who remain silent have chosen comfort over principle,”
“History will unfavorably judge a prosecutor who loses a jury trial in which a black man is acquitted and then appeals the matter claiming his entitlement to an all white jury panel. No matter the outcome, he will live in infamy,”
“The Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney claims I am the only one of 200. I would venture to say he is the first prosecutor in the history of American jurisprudence to lose a jury trial and appeal claiming the jury panel should have been all white. I guess he believes that would have changed the result.”
Judge Stevens upholds that he did not violate judicial policy by making Facebook posts, proclaiming, “has a First Amendment right to speak on such matters fraught with public concern,” which comports with Kentucky judicial canons. The lawsuit itself reads:
“This disproportionate and disparate impact on black defendants is an issue of public concern and Judge Stevens has a constitutionally protected First Amendment right to address it.”
“This right cannot be censored or sanctioned in any way.”
That matter is still pending.
Judge Stevens noted that Wine’s action was, “Racially discriminatory and decisions like it contribute to disproportionately higher incarceration and conviction rates for black men.”
In the lawsuit Stevens also contends that Kentucky has a history of racism in its jury selection and criminal justice systems.
Interestingly enough, only three of 95 circuit judges in the state are black.
The African-American population in Louisville is about 21 percent, but 55 percent of local jail inmates are black according to Judge Stevens.
The Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission and 10 of its members – Wolnitzek, David P. Bowles, Eddy Coleman, Joyce King Jennings, Diane E. Logsdon, Janet L. Stumbo, Jeff S. Taylor, Karen A. Thomas, Jeffrey M. Walson and Kent Westberry – are named as defendants.
Wine Fights Back, And Gets a Court of Appeals to Agree
Eventually, the Court of Appeals ordered Judge Stevens to stop dismissing juries based on the premise that juries are not reflective of the community.
Court of Appeals Judge Irv Maze said that Stevens’s actions: “Violated both U.S. and Kentucky Supreme Court precedent,” and “This practice must cease unless or until the law of this Commonwealth changes.”
In response to the court order against him, Judge Stevens released this statement:
“Without comment on the merits of the case, I understand there is a great discomfort that accompanies efforts to address disparities in our criminal justice system. But any eagerness to defend the status quo should not be without regard to the principles which govern our decision making. Judges must be impartial and free from any conflict of interest. When the Kentucky Court of Appeals testifies for the Commonwealth and then rules in favor of the Commonwealth, our principles have been unapologetically, brazenly and recklessly compromised. Notwithstanding the forgoing, I will abide by the Court of Appeals order.”
No matter the outcome of the legal proceedings, Judge Stevens has elevated the importance of jury selection to a national topic in his clash with Prosecutor Tom Wine.
And as a Judge, Stevens knows that the First Amendment is usually interpreted in an expansive manner, and that other Judges reading his case will think about their own free speech rights before making a decision.