Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Deborah Thomas at the Detroit City Council Auditorium after speaking at the Justice For All Coalition meeting on Monday, Sept. 24, 2007. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe).
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
Wayne County Circuit Court Judge challenges attacks
by Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire
DETROIT, 26 Sept., 2007 (PANW)--Judge Deborah Thomas has become a focal point for a challenge to the increasingly conservative trends with the state courts in Michigan.
Since 2002, Judge Thomas has raised concerns about the composition of juries in Wayne County where the number of eligible African Americans is far lower than their actual percentage within the population.
At a public meeting held in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center's City Council Auditorium on Monday, September 24, a number of lawyers, trade union leaders, community activists and political officials gathered to map out a plan of action to pressurize the Wayne County Court system through mass mobilization and targeted demonstrations.
This meeting, which was convened and hosted by City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, has set out to form a Justice For All Coalition. The meeting on September 24 took place just two weeks after over 500 people demonstrated outside Cadillac Plaza, the headquarters of Michigan state government in Detroit's New Center Area on September 10.
Inside the state office building on September 10 was a meeting of the State Judicial Tenure Commission, an all-white body that has investigated Judge Deborah Thomas and at least two other African American women jurists in the state of Michigan.
On Monday, September 24, a number of talking points were circulated at the beginning of the meeting at the City Council Auditorium. These talking points included:
"-protecting rights to a jury of one's peers
-the reinstatement of the accused's rights to choose a trial by judge or jury
-the restoration of Habeas Corpus legal authority to all judges
-to reinstate protection of the right to a speedy trial and no rush to judgement
-the depoliticization of judicial opinions from the state supreme court and courts of appeal...."
In addition to the talking points, a call to action was also circulated which included:
"-a call for hearings with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights
-hearing before the Wayne County Board of Commissioners
-a call for a federal Department of Justice investigation
-make upholding the Constitution a political issue for all elected positions during 2008 and
-the call for a overwhelming turnout during the upcoming 2008 primary and general elections."
Attorney Alice Jennings spoke at the September 24 meeting pointing out how the Chief Judge of the Wayne County 3rd Circuit, Mary Beth Kelly, stopped Judge Deborah Thomas from requesting a review of the current jury pool.
Jennings cited a study by the National Center for State Courts which indicated that the present percentage of African Americans eligible for jury duty in Wayne County is less than 50% of their numbers within the general population. As of January of 2007, Wayne County is not keeping any data on the racial composition of the jury pool.
According to Jennings, the National Center for State Courts study found that there is a "suppression file" which objectively minimizes African American participation on juries. The file was started in 1997 and is estimated to include one million names.
"They are also suppressing Latinos and Arab Americans," said Jennings. The study recommended the discontinuing of the "suppression file."
"Why does this matter?", asked Jennings. She then cited another study by Samuel Summers at Tufts University focusing on inter-personal relations in jury trials.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," Jennings continued.
"Under the current system in Michigan challenges to the jury composition can only be made after the convictions during the appellate process."
Jennings concluded by stating that: "We have to decide on some strategies and not just wait for Wayne County. This is a denial of your constitutional rights."
City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson reflected on a recent experience while on jury duty in Wayne County. "All I saw was young African American men as defendants and crying black mamas. In the case I heard, only two black women were on the jury."
Attorney Carl Edwards addressed the meeting stating that: "We are in crisis on so many fronts, this is an important period in history."
Edwards talked about the role of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group which has members within the state courts and the supreme court in Michigan. According to Edwards this conservative group is committed to reversing affirmative action, voter's rights, etc.
Edwards contends that the majority of the members on the Michigan Supreme Court are members of the Federalist Society.
Attorney Wanda Evans, who represented the Black Attorneys United for Justice, talked about the crisis now facing Wayne County Juvenile Court. Evans asserted that Chief Judge Mary Beth Kelly removed black attorneys from representing children. A private firm is now representing youth in the county courts.
According to Evans, "oftentimes we are the only real advocates the children have. They often view us as family: many have no one in a professional role to represent them, we are often role models."
Evans concluded by illustrating how several years ago there were reports of foster children that were missings in the region. " A lot of these kids had returned to their mothers even after their parental rights were terminated. Our families are being destroyed. These families have problems but they can be worked with if there are adequate resources made available."
Judge Deborah Thomas closed out the September 24 meeting at the City Council Auditorium. She pointed to the nearly 200 pre-emptorary reversals of her court rulings over the years. She pointed out that the United States Court of Appeals in the Sixth Circuit believed the defendants in these cases were not given proper consideration.
"We should request that Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, the current chair of the House Judiciary Committee, hold hearings on the appeals rulings coming out of the state courts in Michigan," said Thomas.
"There are others who should be contacted about upholding the constitutional rights of citizens in Michigan. There should be Congressional hearings on jury compositions, not just in Michigan, but in states such as Louisiana as well," said Thomas.
In a resoulution to the Detroit City Council submitted by Councilwoman Watson, she states that:
"Whereas, The quality of justice for the people of Detroit is strained by racism, male supremacy and privatization: to wit, a jury pool in Wayne County Circuit Court negatively impacted by lack of representation, consequently catalyzing charges of bias, disparity, racism and failures to preserve the constitutional right of a jury of one's peers; target bias against Black women judges; and privatization of the Friend of the Court; and
"Whereas, The current injustices continue a history in which the conviction of 2 police officers for the 1992 killing of Malice Green was punished in retaliation by the State of Michigan's abolishing the entire court, Recorder's Court, in which the police officers were convicted, a remarkably racially biased abuse of power by the State legislature and Governor of that time, and
"Whereas, The Wayne County County Circuit Court Chief Judge and the Judicial Tenure Commission of the State of Michigan, which is an all white, all male body, have unconstitutionally and with bias targeted Judge Deborah Thomas, a Black woman jurist, for her efforts to protect the constitutional rights of all Detroit citizens, in particular Black men, a group disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system...."
Just two weeks prior to the September 24 meeting, a rally was held in the same City Council Auditorium. This September 10 rally was addressed by the Chair of the Wayne County Commission Jewel Ware as well as Bernard Parker of the Commission.
Bernard Parker commended Judge Deborah Thomas for standing up to the attacks against her. According to Parker it is only in Wayne County that the Chief Judge Mary Beth Kelly is handpicked by the State Supreme Court.
Danny Craig of American Federation of State, County and Muncipal Employees (AFSCME), spoke at both the rally on September 10 and the follow-up meeting on the 24. According to Craig: "the employees of the Friend of the Court stand in solidarity with Judge Thomas. We need to do this for the children. We have to stop the privatization of the court system in Wayne County."
Julie Hurwitz of the Detroit Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild illustrated that the majority of the 20,000 children under the control of the Juvenile Courts in Wayne County are African Americans.
"Our laws and constitution require that these children get support from individual lawyers as any corporate executive charged with a crime. There is a privatization effort under way utilizing outside law firms. Black lawyers are being systematically removed," Hurwitz stated.
"By eliminating individual representation for children in the Juvenile Court system millions of dollars are being diverted in County funds to small groups who sub-contract with other firms. They send a group to represent them. Whoever happens to be in court that day represents the children," says Hurwitz.
Jeff Edison of the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) stated that: "NCBL has always supported and continues to support Judge Deborah. This goes back to the days when former Republican Governor Engler took away the Recorder's Court. We elected Judge Thomas to exercise her authority. This is an attack on the electorate itself. "
Edison summed up the feelings of many of those involved in the campaign to defend Judge Deborah Thomas. He said that: "We are not going to go away silently. If they do it to Judge Thomas they will do it to the others."
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. His articles have appeared in a host of newspapers, journals magazines, research reports, blogs and web sites throughout the international community. Azikiwe can be heard on radio every Tuesday evening at 9:30 p.m. on CKLN, 88.1 FM in Toronto. To hear this broadcast of the Pan-African News Wire editor just log on to http://ckln.fm