Judge Edith Jones on Race, Crime, and God's Vengeance

Civil rights group files complaint against 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge

Judge Edith Jones
Judge Edith Jones

A complaint filed Tuesday by several civil rights groups, including one funded entirely by the government of Mexico, alleges that federal Judge Edith Jones has violated her duty to be impartial and damaged the public's confidence in the judiciary, in statements she made in a public lecture – including that blacks and Hispanics are more violent, and that a death sentence provides a public service by allowing an inmate to "make peace with God."

Jones, who sits on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – based in New Orleans, its jurisdiction includes Texas – made numerous offensive and biased comments during a February lecture at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, according to the complaint filed pursuant to the federal Judicial Conduct and Disability Act. The complaint, filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project, Austin NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program (among others), alleges that during her talk – billed as "Federal Death Penalty Review with Judge Edith Jones (5th Cir.)" – Jones violated a number of canons of the code of conduct for federal judges.

The lecture was apparently not recorded, but various witnesses recalled a number of Jones' controversial statements. The views she expressed included not only that minorities are responsible for more violent crime than are whites, but also that claims by death row inmates that racism or arbitrariness infected their prosecutions, or that they are mentally retarded or actually innocent, are merely "red herrings." She reportedly told the law students and other attendees that she thought the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling outlawing the death penalty for the mentally retarded did intellectually disabled individuals a disservice, and that to create such an exemption from execution was a "slippery slope." "In describing ... what Judge Jones said about these cases, I am not able to capture the complete outrage she expressed over the crimes or the disgust she evinced over the defense raised, particularly by the defendants who claimed to be mentally retarded," reads the declaration of veteran Pennsylvania-based death penalty attorney Marc Bookman, who attended the lecture.

Furthermore, Jones "denigrated" the system of justice in Mexico and said it was an "insult" when the U.S. considered laws of other countries when looking at the death penalty – presumably including Mexico, where capital punishment was outlawed in 2005. She told the audience that "any Mexican national would rather be on death row in the United States than in a Mexican prison," reads the complaint, and indicated that the U.S. provides Mexican citizens more legal protections than does their own system of justice. Moreover, Jones referred to her personal religious views as justification for the death penalty. A killer is "only likely to make peace with God and the victim's family in that moment when the killer faces imminent execution," she said.

And she asserted as fact the proposition that blacks and Hispanics are more likely to commit violent crimes. When asked to explain, "she stated that there was 'no arguing' that 'Blacks and Hispanics' outnumber 'Anglos' on death row and 'sadly' it was a 'statistical fact' that people 'from these racial groups get involved in more violent crime,'" reads the complaint.

Jones' comments about race and crime not only demonstrate an "utter disregard for the fundamental judicial standard of impartiality," but also touch directly on an issue pending in the ongoing case of Duane Buck, a death row inmate who has been fighting to get a new sentencing hearing based on the fact that racially biased statements were allowed into testimony during his trial. When the comments in those cases came to light in 2000, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn declared that the state would not stand in the way of new sentencing hearings. The case is ongoing, and, ultimately, will make its way to the 5th Circuit for review.

According to the complaint, Jones also made direct comments on several cases that have not yet made it all the way through the appeals process – cases on which she may judge, or has already sat in judgment, including the Texas death row cases of Larry Swearingen and Elroy Chester.

Jones, 64, was appointed to the 5th Circuit in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan. The UT Law graduate is an opponent of abortion rights and a supporter of efforts to streamline appeals in death penalty cases. She was twice mentioned as a potential nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court – first during the presidency of George H.W. Bush (who instead chose David Souter), and in 2005 as a possible nominee of President George W. Bush.

Complaints such as the one against Jones, signed also by a selection of nationally recognized legal ethicists, are filed with the chief judge of the court of appeals in the circuit where the judge at issue sits – in this case, Carl Stewart, the current chief judge of the 5th Circuit. In this case, the filers are asking that the complaint be referred to another circuit for consideration.

In a detailed affidavit, James McCormack, a legal ethicist as well as former general counsel and chief disciplinary counsel for the State Bar of Texas, writes that the content of Jones' speech violates a number of ethical provisions within the judicial code of conduct – including the duty to be impartial; to avoid comment on pending cases; to be respectful and "avoid comment or behavior that could be interpreted as harassment, prejudice or bias,"; and to avoid participating in "extrajudicial activities that detract from the dignity" of the judge's office or would "reflect adversely on the judge's impartiality." In sum, McCormack concluded that Jones has engaged in "cognizable misconduct. ... Her inflammatory remarks evince bias and prejudice and serve to lower public confidence in our judiciary."

For more on this story, visit the Newsdesk blog at austinchronicle.com.

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News, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Racism, Pennsylvania Law School, Judicial Conduct and Disability Act, Texas Civil Rights Project, Austin NAACP, League of United Latin American Citizens, Supreme Court, Duane Buck, John Cornyn, Carl Stewart, James McCormack, State Bar of Texas, Larry Swearingen, Elroy Chester

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