Update: Magistrate Hal Horne has issued recommendations regarding the contempt charges. He says “…Mr. Brown was attempting to provoke a riot in the courtroom which was filled with over 70 citizens….”.
First of all, Brown is a retired Judge. Maybe we should use his title. Secondly, listen to the audio again, and tell me if you hear the makings of a riot. I don’t.
The events of Monday that began with District Attorney Candidate Joe Brown “inciting a riot” by one account, and pulling a “stunt” by another are in the books.
Public opinion about the event itself appears to be mostly set based on people’s opinions of Brown and their level of support for him or his opponent in the election.
If what Judge Brown did was a premeditated “stunt”, I would be disappointed that real people with real problems were being used as political props. But after talking to him, I don’t think it was.
There are many people here in Memphis that see the Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court (MSCJC) as an institution that distributes unequal justice…something that’s not exactly without foundation.
While the focus has been on theatrics, a client has been largely forgotten by the media. That client has had problems with MSCJC according to Brown, and those problems are the foundation upon which he objected his way into a contempt charge.
What we know
The events of Monday pique my interest in understanding why things went down the way they did, and if the authority (in this case the Juvenile Court) engaged in any of the charges Brown has raised.
There are three things that we know about the situation and the individual parties involved:
1. Joe Brown was dismissive of the Magistrate’s authority after that Magistrate ruled to continue a case that has been ongoing for 8 years.
2. The Shelby County Juvenile Court is under Federal oversight for failing to provide due process to children, racial disparities in the administration of justice, and unsafe confinement procedures. Incidentally, a quick listen to the audio released by the court shows that the due process problem is the exact thing Brown was complaining about.
3. Outside of this, we know Brown for his public persona. Many people have pointed to Brown’s comments at a Shelby County Democratic Party function in the fall as a way to judge his actions based on some the mean, inappropriate, and ignorant things he said at the event. I won’t link the two together, though those comments are and were unsettling.
Any or all three of these things may influence your opinion of what happened and why. But it is the immediate messaging to the media after the contempt that also raises questions for me.
30 minutes after the first news of Brown’s arrest broke, a media outlet tweeted that “some people” thought this was a publicity stunt. No word on who those people were.
Around the same time, a reporter from another outlet tweeted that the Chief Magistrate from the Juvenile Court said, Brown “nearly started a riot” in the courtroom. There are reasons to question this characterization, which I will get into later.
Two hours after the first report, Amy Weirich’s campaign called the affair a stunt.
30 minutes later, the Chief Magistrate released audio of Brown’s comments, but not the entirety of the proceedings.
By this point, the “stunt” and “riot” message had been firmly implanted in the words of media outlets, and its hard to discern which how much of it was pure repetition or group message adoption.
This timeline is reflected in a storify post at the bottom of this post. Not all the tweets from yesterday are used, just the first ones in my timeline on each topic.
I listened to the audio released by the court itself several times Monday night.
I found myself wondering what happened before the whole contempt thing even became an issue. The audio is not a complete accounting of the proceedings. Because of this, we have no context as to why Brown chose to openly question the authority of the Magistrate in his court.
Brown’s account of what he was doing at the court which can be seen here.
In this second clip, Brown is calmer, and concisely lays out what happened in the court and what led to the outburst.
Neither the court audio, nor Brown’s description sound like the “riot” the Chief Magistrate of the MSCJC described.
I spoke with Judge Brown on the phone about the case against his client, and he confirmed the details he laid out in that second clip. He also noted that his concerns mirror DOJ charges.
The Questioning and the Client
What’s lost in this Monday Morning Quarterbacking is what happened and had been happening with the client…who will have to come back to court on another day to have her case heard. This delay isn’t the result of what Brown did, it was the thing that set Brown off.
Brown asked for the case to be dismissed. According to Brown, the defendant in this case, a female has been summoned to Juvenile Court multiple times over the past eight years on a child support claim. The plaintiff, however, does not live here, has not provided the name of a child to test paternity, nor a date of birth, or any proof of a child at all.
Note, the woman Brown was representing isn’t asking for a paternity test on this unknown child, nor child support.
It was on those grounds, as well as due process claims, that Brown asked for a dismissal. The Magistrate continued the case, which is within a few seconds of the “riot” that the Chief Magistrate reported to the media.
The statistical analysis shows that Black children in Shelby County are less likely to receive the benefits of more lenient judicial and non-judicial options.
The case data showed that a Black child was more than twice as likely to be detained as a White child. This number remained unchanged after accounting for other legal and social factors.
…Black children in JCMSC have a greater odds ratio (2.07) of being considered for transfer to the criminal court and have a substantially higher chance of having their case actually transferred to the criminal court.
DOJ Investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court – Summary of findings
In the nearly 19 months since the DOJ findings, and 15 months since the consent order was signed, there has been no public accounting of progress at MSCJC.
In that time, its not as if politics have been absent from the halls of the MSCJC. Earlier this year, Odell Horton Jr. wrote an opinion at the request of the County attorney that says Judge Person’s exclusion of community monitors, per the consent decree, could be subject to scrutiny under the Code of Judicial Conduct.
In that article, MSCJC CAO Larry Scroggs is cited as saying, “Brooks’s public criticism of Person, her votes on the commission against funding certain requests by the court and her candidacy for Juvenile Court clerk as reasons for denying the community monitor program.”
It makes me wonder if Brown’s candidacy had any bearing on what happened in his case.
Either way, based on the comment from Scroggs, it seems clear that political considerations play a large role at what happens at the MSCJC.
You don’t have to like Judge Brown, his tactics, his personality, or anything else, but you also shouldn’t just assume this was a stunt based on your opinion of him. There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.
I can say, without question that I find many things about Judge Brown’s public statements from last year troubling. But my distaste for those things doesn’t blind me to the possibility that there may have been a real injustice going on at the MSCJC on Monday.
That potential injustice was the cause of the conflict, right or wrong. That should be the focus of future coverage, but it won’t be. That story is too hard a get and doesn’t sparkle with the same kind of conflict, intrigue, or mug shots.