Judge Deborah Thomas speaks on recent attacks on African-American women jurists at a MECAWI public meeting on Saturday, August 25, 2007. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe).
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
PANW Editor's Note: Judge Deborah Thomas spoke yesterday at a public forum on the Prison Industrial Complex that was held at the offices of the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice (MECAWI)in Detroit. She discussed the current attacks on her as an African-American Judge in the city of Detroit.
Judge Thomas has been under attack for her efforts aimed at providing legal avenues for people to protect themselves from the unjust implementation of the constitution. This forum featured several other speakers who analyzed the growing perils of the right-wing control of the Michigan and the Federal Supreme Courts.
Additional speakers included: Kevin Carey of MECAWI, Doreen Bey, an advocate for juveniles within the legal system, a phone-in call from Rev. Edward Pinkney who is under house arrest in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Kay Perry of MI-CURE, which monitors state legislation related to prison reform, Cheryl LaBash, of the Justice for Cuba Coalition, who spoke about the recent federal appeals hearing on the Cuban Five, Andrea Egypt, of MECAWI, who spoke on the plight of women in the prison system and Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire.
Also a film was shown entitled: "Torture: America's Brutal Prisons," documenting the fact that what is happening in Abu-Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and in Afghan detention centers is part and parcel of the United States practices of denying the fundamental human and civil rights of oppressed peoples around the world.
Participants of yesterday's forum pledged support in building the demonstration in support of Judge Deborah Thomas and other jurists on September 10 outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Cener in downtown Detroit.
Black Women Judges under court attack
Judges Deborah Thomas left, and Beverly Nettles-Nickerson
DETROIT RALLY FOR COURT CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS SEPT. 10
By Diane Bukowski
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Majority white juries sending Blacks to prison, prison overcrowding, and evictions by suburban landlords — these are some of the issues three of Michigan’s Black women judges have tackled. In return, they have faced investigations and charges from mostly white chief judges and the all-white state Judicial Tenure Commission (JTC), as well as the threat of removal from the bench by the State Supreme Court.
The three are Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Deborah Thomas, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Beverley Nettles-Nickerson, and Detroit’s 36th District Court Judge Jeannette O’Banner-Owens. O’Banner-Owens, 62, died July 27 after a long fight against lung disease.
“She really died of a broken heart, after years of attacks,” said her attorney Philip Thomas, who had just succeeded in having the state Supreme Court reject a JTC recommendation to remove her from the bench. Philip Thomas also represents Judges Thomas and Nettles-Nickerson.
Judge Thomas challenged lack of Blacks on juries
In 2004 Judge Thomas challenged the disproportionate number of whites on Wayne County Circuit Court juries after a jury panel appearing in front of her contained only one Black out of 30 individuals.
Her order in that case led to two studies showing Blacks make up only 27 percent of jury panels in the county, while the county’s population is 42 percent African-American.
The second study, by the National Center for State Courts, found systematic exclusion of Blacks including the permanent removal from the eligible list of anyone who fails to return a jury questionnaire.
During that time, Chief Judge Mary Beth Kelly, who is white and Republican, attempted to remove Thomas from the court’s Criminal Division. Kelly ordered that all challenges to jury composition be heard only by herself. Kelly most recently barred Thomas from hearing all pre-trial motions, claiming Thomas’ docket is backed up.
Thomas also faces a Judicial Tenure investigation, challenging some of her rulings as anti-police and anti-prosecution.
Thomas has filed for a writ of superintending control from the state Supreme Court. She says two of the JTC members, Michael Talbot and Nancy Diehl, have personally opposed her rulings in their capacities on the appeals court and in the prosecutor’s office.
But Thomas’ supporters are fighting back, addressing the issues behind the attacks.
“Justice can only be found in a legal system that allows for an independent judiciary operating diligently and with impartiality,” said David Roby, President of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, in a release announcing an investigation of Kelly’s actions.
“Judge Kelly’s order reeks with the appearance of partisan politics rather than a true concern for courtroom operation,” Roby went on. “The removal of pretrial motions does not reduce Judge Thomas’ courtroom workload, it merely makes conduct of any trial with a clear sense of all the information nearly impossible. . . Just because some other judges and prosecutors may disagree occasionally with her opinions, it doesn’t mean she is incapable of managing her own courtroom.”
Supporters plan rally
Judge Thomas’ supporters are planning a rally Sept. 10 from noon to 2 p.m. in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center auditorium to protect the people’s right to a jury of their peers, or to a bench trial. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s office has insisted that most trials before Thomas and several other judges go to the Circuit Court’s predominantly white juries.
The rally would also support the right to habeas corpus, an ages-old law which mandates that a prisoner can be brought before a judge forthwith to challenge the legality of his/her confinement. Kelly has relegated that duty to one assigned judge out of 60 per week.
“We keep sitting down and letting our constitutional rights slip away,” said Thomas. “We don’t stand up like our parents and grandparents did 50 years ago. We’re hoping to have representatives from government agencies like the City Council, the Wayne County Commission, the Michigan Civil Rights Department, and others from the grass roots. We want a very diverse group, not only Blacks, but the Muslim, Hispanic, and Arab communities, as well as our European-American brothers and sisters.”
Judge Beverley Nettles-Nickerson faces trial
Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Beverley Nettles-Nickerson was the first Black judge elected to that bench in 2003, after 12 years as a district court judge. Ingham County is home to Lansing, the state capital, where the city council awarded her the Sojourner Truth award for her years of service.
Nettles-Nickerson has spoken out in favor of alternatives to prison sentencing, such as residential programs, due to prison overcrowding.
On June 6 the State Supreme Court indefinitely suspended her, pending outcome of a trial set for Sept. 12.
The court based the suspension on numerous charges filed by the Judicial Tenure Commission, including one that she unfairly accused Circuit Court Chief Judge William E. Collette of racial bias in his treatment of her, and filed a complaint with the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Judge Nettles-Nickerson later withdrew the complaint in favor of attempting to settle the matter internally.
State Supreme Court Justice Clifford Taylor, who is Black but a Republican conservative, appointed a white retired judge, Marvin Robertson, to investigate her allegations. According to Carl Gromek, Chief of Staff for the State Court Administrator, Robertson “found no evidence of racism on Judge Collette’s part.” Nettles-Nickerson countered that Robertson interviewed only one of five witnesses she gave him.
In a letter to the Judicial Tenure Commission, Gromek asked them to investigate the judge, adding, “As Judge Nettles-Nickerson drew a great deal of public attention to the race issue, I ask that you expedite your investigation to the extent possible.”
In response to subsequent JTC charges, the Michigan Civil Rights Department issued a strongly-worded release.
“It is our sincere hope that the JTC did not intend to imply that Judge Nettles-Nickerson should be disciplined in any way for exercising her right to file a civil rights complaint,” said the Department. “A suspension for filing an allegation of illegal discrimination would violate state and federal civil rights laws . . .and have a chilling effect on the state’s ability to protect persons who legitimately believe they may be victims of illegal discrimination.”
The JTC also alleges, among other matters, that Nettles-Nickerson held a press conference to support her court clerk, Dorothy Dungey, who is Black, against allegedly imaginary attempts by Collette and others to fire her. They also say that Nettles-Nickerson lived out of the district, while staying at a friend’s house for three weeks pending her divorce, and that in various instances she was late in holding court proceedings.
Nettles-Nickerson’s fellow judge, James Giddings, has filed an affidavit in her support, as has Lawrence Nolan, former President of the Ingham County Bar Association. Five Lansing-area pastors joined together in a statement condemning the JTC investigation and calling for an independent investigation of the JTC itself.
“The investigation and complaint have the appearance of being personally, politically and racially motivated,” said the pastors. “Why would three judges who happen to be white go on record making personal, subjective statements against Judge Nettles-Nickerson before she has her day in court? . . . We believe that Judge Nettles-Nickerson is the victim of a public lynching.”
Judge Jeanette O’Banner-Owens dies after fight to keep her seat
On June 13, the State Supreme Court denied a petition by the JTC to have Thirty-Sixth District Court Judge Jeanette O’Banner-Owens removed for allegations of judicial misconduct, after 19 years on the bench. O’Banner-Owens, who had been on sick leave for lung disease, died July 27.
“At the time she passed away,” said attorney Philip Thomas, “the JTC had just added a formal complaint alleging she was faking her illness because she didn’t want to go back to work. I believe she died of a broken heart after fighting seven years of allegations against her.”
The JTC accused her of “unnecessarily harsh remarks” and interrupting witnesses excessively, voicing “erroneous legal opinions” and rulings, and “frequent ethnocentric remarks and other comments reflecting bias . . . in favor of parties from Detroit or who are African-American.”
They also alleged that she frequently made religious remarks out of court, dressed “inappropriately” under her robes, and said her psychological behavior had deteriorated. They subjected her to detailed examinations by three psychiatrists who concluded that she suffered from dementia.
But Atty. Thomas said that after two years, he was finally able to obtain two eight-page letters sent by the JTC to the psychiatrists that “poisoned the well.”
A fourth psychiatrist, Dr. Stephen Aronson, an adjunct University of Michigan professor, said in fact that O’Banner-Owens showed no signs of dementia, and expressed shock that the other doctors had taken those letters into account before examining O’Banner-Owens.