There is a controversy out of the University of Virginia where federal Judge Carlton Reeves gave a scathing speech against President Donald Trump — likening his conduct to that of the Kl Klux Klan and segregationists from the Jim Crow period. The speech (accepting an award) raising troubling issues about Reeves engaging in political speech in violation of core judicial ethical rules.
A U.S. District Court Judge of the Southern District of Mississippi, Reeves is an Obama appointee from 2010. He was receiving the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law at the University of Virginia and gave a 16-page speech with 130 footnotes.
In the speech, Reeves takes thinly veiled swipes at Trump, using his unmistakable tweets to make historical comparative points:
“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 leaders chastise people for merely ‘using the courts,’ you can hear the Citizens Council, hammering up the names of black petitioners in Yazoo City.”
I have previously denounced those same attacks by Trump on the courts. However, I am a legal commentator, not a sitting federal judge. Thus, the issue is not the merits but the messenger.
The most basic canons of judicial ethics dictate that judges avoid political activities and positions:
A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
A judge shall conduct the judge’s personal and extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office.
A judge or candidate for judicial office shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.
Most judges would not give such a speech that ventured so deeply into the political debate. Reeves had justifiable anger over Trump’s attacks — a view shared privately with me by many judges. However, Reeves made the comments publicly:
“When the powerful accuse courts of ‘opening 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.”
While some may cite the recent statement of Chief Justice John Roberts to show that judges cannot be expected to remain silent in the face of acts on the courts. I do not agree. I previously wrote about the Roberts controversy. First, and foremost, Roberts’ statement was essentially one line confined to the rejecting the notion of Democratic and Republican judges. Reeves went far beyond that.
Second, this was a speech at a public event that addressed objections to the conduct and comments of a sitting president. Reeves clearly was denouncing the President’s views and rhetoric.
Finally, Reeves tied the President’s comments directly to threats and insults directed at himself personally:
“I know, because I am there. The proof is in my mailbox. In countless letters of hatred I’ve been called ‘piece of garbage,’ ‘an arrogant pompous piece of s…, ‘a disgrace,’ an ‘asshole…(who) will burn in hell,’ and the ‘embodiment of Satan himself.’”
He also ventured into judicial appointments — again an area of politics that most judge avoid: “Justice (Sonia) Sotomayor was originally a George H.W. Bush appointee. And the last Republican administration confirmed 24 black judges,” Reeves said. “This administration has confirmed one.”
The controversy is disappointing given Reeve’s moving personal story. Reeves was the first in his family to attend a four-year college. He graduated in 1986 magna cum laude from Jackson State University and then attended the University of Virginia School of Law as a Ritter Scholar. When Reeves was a teenager, he cleaned the office of Judge William Henry Barbour, Jr.
The comments are, in my view, clearly inappropriate for a sitting federal judge. It is the price that must be paid for an Article III lifetime appointment as a federal judge. Judges must accept that their political views must remain private and their activities strictly apolitical. That standard was not met in this instance.