Tuesday, December 9, 2014

WRITING ABOUT WRONGS


WHY I WRITE ABOUT WRONGS
©Wendell Griffen, 2014

Some question why I, a trial judge, post on social media.  They believe judges should not comment about controversial social issues such as police brutality, racial disparity in how police interact with people of color, racism, and cultural incompetence within the legal system that undermines public confidence in it. 

Like millions of other people around the world I have a Facebook account.  After Michael Brown, Jr., an unarmed black teenager, was killed by Darren Wilson on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri I posted several essays on my Facebook page.  In those essays I criticized the cultural incompetence of the Ferguson and St. Louis County, Missouri political and law enforcement establishment. 

I posted more essays after a St. Louis County, Missouri decided not to charge Wilson with a crime for killing Brown due to a grand jury process marked by glaring impropriety.  I posted comments on Facebook after a grand jury in Staten Island, New York decided not to charge New York Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo with a crime for choking to death Eric Garner, an unarmed 43 year old black husband and father, on July 17 of this year. 

I’ve remarked about the glaring contrasts between how the police interacted with unarmed Michael Brown, Jr., unarmed Eric Garner, and toy pistol wielding twelve year old Tamir Rice of Cleveland (by summarily executing them) and how Clive Bundy and Eric Frein have been treated. 

Eric Frein is a white man who allegedly shot and killed a Pennsylvania state trooper and seriously wounded another one, evaded custody for several weeks before he was recently taken into custody, alive.  

Clive Bundy is a white Nevada cattle rancher who was judged guilty of illegally grazing his cattle on federal land.  When federal agents captured some of Bundy’s trespassing cattle earlier this year Bundy led a band of people in an armed assault on the federal officers.  To this day, Clive Bundy has not been arrested for leading that armed assault on law enforcement officers.  Clive Bundy is alive.

The glaring disparity in the way law enforcement officers treat people of color and how they treat white people isn’t a pleasant topic to think, talk, or write about.  I do so, however, because the issue will not be corrected unless and until we do so. 

As a judge, I have more than ordinary insight into the problem.  I’ve graduated from law school, practiced law as an attorney, served as a trial and appellate judge, taught law school, written scholarly articles about law, and been involved in many seminars, workshops, and other events that deal with law and justice. 

I write about cultural incompetence (within law enforcement and elsewhere) because I have more than ordinary insight about social injustice and human relations.  That was part of the work I did as an Army officer.  I’ve continued working, speaking, and consulting with leaders and institutions since then. 

Although some people believe judges shouldn’t comment publicly about controversial social issues, that belief is mistaken.  As long as we don’t comment about cases actually pending in our courts or actual cases that may end up in our courts judges are free to speak, write, sing (yes, judges sing), create visual art (yes, some judges are also visual artists), and otherwise communicate about anything we find interesting, including controversial social issues.

The general public doesn’t understand what a grand jury is, how it is supposed to work, and the legal principles that govern its functioning.  The general public doesn’t understand how a grand jury differs from a trial (petit) jury.  If judges and lawyers don’t comment about these and other subjects related to our justice process then public thought and conversation will be driven by misinformation, misunderstanding, and even deceit. 

Some judges don’t choose to publicly comment about controversial social issues.  Their choice doesn’t mean that other judges who choose to comment are wrong, unwise, or damaging the judicial system.

Some people don’t like it that I criticize unjust behavior by people in law enforcement.  Public servants, including those in law enforcement, deserve respect.  They equally deserve criticism when they harm others, not favoritism.  The police have no right to be free from criticism.

Police who kill unarmed people aren’t above the law that governs everyone else.  I shouldn’t be a judge if I can’t see and say that.

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