South Carolina Judge Michael Nettles has imposed a novel sentence on Cassandra Tolley, 28, for DUI. Tolley has been ordered to read and write a summary of the Old Testament book of Job. I have been an outspoken critic of such novel punishments for years (here and here). The order to read and summarize a religious book is not simply an affront to our legal system but a danger to the separation of church and state.
Tolley pleaded guilty to a drunk-driving crash that seriously injured two people. During her hearing, she mentioned that she was a Christian in addition to an account of childhood abuse. The judge sentenced her to eight years in jail followed by five years of probation and substance abuse counseling. Nettles then added the requirement that she read and summarize the Book of Job.
We have seen judges order defendants to attend mass or yoga lessons. Others seek to humiliate them by making them peel gum from the bottom of the courtroom benches or sleep in dog houses. All of these sentences represent the loss of the touchstone of a legal system: consistent and coherent sentencing. Judges assume the roles of judicial Caesars — toying with defendants who do not know if they will receive a conventional punishment or some idiosyncratic sentence for a judge. Judges appear to be increasingly mimicking faux judges from television from Judge Judy to Judge Brown. This is primarily a problem in the state courts where some elected judges openly pander to the public’s taste for humiliating or novel sentencing.
Because she consented to the sentence, there will be no appeal. Moreover, individuals can agree to such acts so long as they are not given coercive choices between jail and some humiliating acts as with the recent case of the judge ordering a girl’s hair cut in front of him.
The addition of a religious element makes this latest sentence all the more problematic but no doubt all the more popular with the public. Citizens are left not knowing what entertaining flourish a judge will place on their sentence. Indeed, many will feel as lucky as Job and exclaim: “I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” Job, 19. 20
Judge Nettles graduated cum laude from Wofford College in 1981 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. Michael earned his Juris Doctorate degree from the University of South Carolina in 1984. His bio says that he is “an active member of the Lake City First Baptist Church, where he serves as a Deacon, Sunday School Teacher, and member of the Foreign Missions Team.”