Jurisprudence

Federal Judge: Donald Trump Is Leading an “Assault on Our Judiciary”

Judge Carlton Reeves.
Judge Carlton Reeves.
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi/Wikimedia

In his nine years on the bench, Judge Carlton Reeves has proved to be one of the most eloquent, courageous, and principled jurists in the United States. Reeves, appointed by President Barack Obama to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, has issued a series of pathbreaking decisions protecting the rights of women and minorities. He struck down Mississippi’s same-sex marriage ban; invalidated a law banning abortions after 15 weeks, dismissing its ostensible goal of protecting women’s health as “pure gaslighting”; and threw out a racial gerrymander designed to dilute black citizens’ votes. This last decision so infuriated a conservative appeals court judge that she launched a personal attack on Reeves that is now the subject of a judicial ethics complaint.

Reeves is not one to mince words or conceal his contempt for injustice. And on Thursday, he delivered an extraordinary speech upon receiving the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law. Reeves’ speech is worth reading or listening to in full. The address is a powerful defense of diversity and equality, as well as a grave warning that, as Reeves put it: “We are now eyewitnesses to the third great assault on our judiciary”—one led by President Donald Trump.

The first assault, Reeves explained, came during Reconstruction when white supremacists reversed the post–Civil War march of civil rights. Ku Klux Klan members and their allies attempted to assassinate black judges, shot black jurors, and “filled judgeships with former Confederates who had sworn to uphold slavery.” The second came after Brown v. Board of Education, when segregations assailed courts’ efforts to integrate the South, “smearing judges, shrinking judicial power, and scrubbing diversity from courtrooms.” Senators tried to strip courts “of jurisdiction over civil rights claims and impeach judges receptive to those claims.” Judges “who sought to deliver justice” faced “death threats and hate mail. Their pets were poisoned. Their children’s graves were desecrated.”

Beginning with President Jimmy Carter, however, “our nation witnessed a revolution, one that dramatically expanded and improved the body of expertise federal courts depend on to find truth. We saw the addition of more black judges, more women judges, more Latina and Latino judges, more Asian-American judges, more Native American and Pacific Islander judges, and more openly LGBTQ judges than ever before.” But “this effort to make our judiciary reflect America was as brief as it was remarkable.” Because now the third assault has begun. Reeves continued:

If you’ve never relied on a court, you may not see the assault. If you’ve never seen a friend or loved one wrongly imprisoned, you may not feel it. If you have never been stopped for Driving While Black, like my friend Judge Robert Wilkins, you might not fear it. But if you know the words of Mississippi’s darkest moments, you can hear it.

Then, in a remarkable passage, Reeves listed Trump’s litany of condemnations against the judiciary:

When politicians attack courts as “dangerous,” “political,” and guilty of “egregious overreach,” you can hear the Klan’s lawyers, assailing officers of the court across the South. … When the powerful accuse courts of “open[ing] up our country to potential terrorists,” you can hear the Southern Manifesto’s authors, smearing the judiciary for simply upholding the rights of black folk. When lawmakers say “we should get rid of judges,” you can hear segregationist senators, writing bills to strip courts of their power. And when the executive branch calls our courts and their work “stupid,” “horrible,” “ridiculous,” “incompetent,” “a laughingstock,” and a “complete and total disgrace,” you can hear the slurs and threats of executives like George Wallace, echoing into the present.

Every single one of these quotes was uttered by Trump.

Reeves went on:

I know what I heard when a federal judge was called “very biased and unfair” because he is “of Mexican heritage.” When that judge’s ethnicity was said to prevent his issuing “fair rulings.” When that judge was called a “hater” simply because he is Latino. I heard the words of James Eastland, a race-baiting politician, empowered by the falsehood of white supremacy, questioning the judicial temperament of a man solely because of the color of his skin. I heard those words and I did not know if it was 1967 or 2017.

This false seed is being sown across this country, from Mississippi to Virginia. I know, because I am there. The proof is in my mailbox. In countless letters of hatred I’ve been called a “piece of garbage,” “an arrogant pompous piece of sh**,” “a disgrace,” an “asshole …[who] will burn in hell,” and the “embodiment of Satan himself.” One person has even told me that he has “prayed that God will give [me] complete discomfort.” The deliverers of hate who send these messages aim to bully and scare judges who look like me from the judiciary. And so they share an aim with those who used whips and ropes and trees against my ancestors: scrubbing the black experience from our nation’s courts.

Reeves then tore into the astonishing lack of diversity among Trump’s judicial nominees:

This attack is heard loudest in the slander of Judge Curiel. But it will be felt through this administration’s judicial nominations, especially those confirmed with the advice and consent of the Senate. Of the Article III judges confirmed under the current administration, 90 percent have been white. Just one of those judges is black. Just two are Hispanic. It’s not just about racial diversity. Barely 25 percent of this administration’s confirmed judges are women. None have been black or Latina. Achieving complete gender equality on the federal bench would require us to confirm only 23 women a year. … Think: in a country where they make up just 30 percent of the population, non-Hispanic white men make up nearly 70 percent of this administration’s confirmed judicial appointees. That’s not what America looks like. That’s not even what the legal profession looks like. …

This administration and a bare majority of the Senate, walking arm-and-arm, are not stumbling unaware towards a homogeneous judiciary. Think of the slurs against Judge Curiel. Think of the nominations to the bench of those who call diversity “code for relaxed standards,” who call transgender children part of “Satan’s plan,” who defend the KKK in online message boards, who led voter suppression efforts for segregationists like Jesse Helms. Think of the pattern of judicial nominees refusing to admit, like generations of nominees before them have, that Brown v. Board was correctly decided.

The consequences of this “homogeneous judiciary,” Reeves noted, will be devastating to justice.

Defending the judiciary means more than demanding that more women and people of color be appointed to the bench. With no Muslims on the bench, will our judiciary understand the many facets of religious freedom? How can it defend economic opportunity with so few judges who know the taste of a free lunch program or the weight of poverty? How can our judiciary understand the depths of mass incarceration when so few judges have stood with the accused or know them as neighbors, as Sunday School students, as loved ones? Filled only with the experiences of prosecutors and state court judges, of Big Law partners and corporate counsel, of a single religion or sexual orientation, our courts will fail to find the many truths justice must see. We need a judiciary as diverse as our country—as diverse as “We the People.”

Reeves then turned to the Supreme Court. “We have as many justices who have graduated from Georgetown Prep,” he pointed out, “as we have justices who have lived as a non-white person. When our Supreme Court captures such a narrow set of perspectives, what truths will it overlook?” Moreover, too many justices have failed to defend the judiciary against Trump’s bigotry. “It is not enough for judges,” Reeves said, “seeing race-based attacks on their brethren, to say they are merely ‘disheartened,’ ” as Justice Neil Gorsuch did, “or to simply affirm their nonpartisan status,” as Chief Justice John Roberts has. “We must do more to defend our bench.”

But courts “must do more than denounce and diversify.” Judges must demand “resources they need to find truth. We must expand the reach and power of our courts, offering justice to all who claim the promise of America.”

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has lately moved in the opposite direction. And Trump’s new crop of judges shows no interest in “offering justice to all.” Due to the cynicism and cowardice of senators and judges who kowtow to Trump, this “third great assault on the judiciary” shows no sign of ceasing. But Reeves refuses to stand by and watch the erosion of civil rights in quiet dismay. He has issued a call to arms for all who support a strong, independent, and diverse judiciary: fight for what you believe in before Trump and his allies “close the courthouse doors to those who most need justice.”