Jefferson Medalist Calls for Defense of Judiciary

U.S. Judge Carlton W. Reeves ’89 Says Justice Under Attack
Carlton Reeves

U.S. Judge Carlton W. Reeves ’89 addressed a capacity audience in the Law School’s Caplin Auditorium. Photo by Sanjay Suchak/University Communications

April 12, 2019

U.S. Judge Carlton W. Reeves, a 1989 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and this year’s recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law, used his speech marking the occasion Thursday to make an appeal.

Reeves asked the capacity audience in the Law School’s Caplin Auditorium, comprised primarily of law students, to defend the judiciary.

President Barack Obama appointed Reeves to the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Mississippi in 2010, a time of historic gains for diversity on the bench. Reeves became the second African American appointed to a federal judgeship in the state. Other races and the LGBT community also witnessed breakthroughs in representation, he said.

“For a brief moment there were so many firsts, each one making our judiciary better reflect the best of America,” Reeves said. “I know, because I was there.”

But he said those gains have been under attack in a new period of pushback.

“The proof is in my mailbox, in the countless letters of hatred,” the judge said. He added, “The deliverers of hate, who send these messages, aim to bully and scare judges.”

Reeves said the current administration’s confirmed Article III judges — federal judges appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate — have been 90 percent white, including only one black and two Hispanic judges.

In order to truly represent “we the people,” he said, “We need a judiciary as diverse as our country.”

He pointed out that past Republican administrations have made greater efforts to appoint diverse judges to the judiciary.

Reeves also questioned the current trend of political attacks on the judiciary — “when the executive branch calls our courts, in their words, ‘stupid,’ ‘horrible,’ ridiculous,’ ‘incompetent,’ ‘a laughing stock’ and ‘a complete and total disgrace’” — and the impact it has on public perception about judges’ ability to administer justice.

“Courts can and should be criticized,” Reeves said. “Judges get it wrong — all the time. That includes me. Scrutiny of our reasoning is not, on its own, troubling.”

But, he said, the “slander and falsehoods thrown at courts today are not those of a critic seeking to improve the judiciary’s search for truth. They are the words of an attacker, seeking to distort and twist that search toward falsehood.”

The judge has been an important voice for upholding the rights of minorities in Mississippi. In Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, a same-sex marriage dispute, and Barber v. Bryant, Reeves ruled in favor of LGBT rights. In his hate-crime sentencing in United States v. Butler, a case that involved the racially motivated killing of an African-American man, Reeves gave moving remarks on the related history of lynching in the state.

Reeves prefaced his appeal on behalf of the judiciary with a history of racial injustice in the U.S., mentioning both Mississippi and Virginia. He started with Thomas Jefferson, whom he noted as a singular thinker of his time who furthered ideals of equality, yet also an owner of slaves whose legacy “cannot be separated from an assault on the judiciary.” Reeves wondered what Jefferson might have thought of him receiving the award.

“I’m here today not just as a black man, but a black judge,” he said.

He concluded his history on racial justice in the civil rights era with Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined segregated schools to be unconstitutional. Reeves, a native of  Yazoo City, Mississippi, was among the first children in that state to receive a desegregated education.

He said with each major stride for racial justice by “brave leaders, judges, plaintiffs,” white supremacy has mustered resistance, including through organized attacks on the courts.

“We are now eyewitnesses to the third great assault on our judiciary,” he said.

But Reeves said he has hope. Not just for racial justice, but justice on all fronts. For every hate-driven letter he receives, he said, he receives 10 others that are positive and appreciative.

Sponsored jointly by UVA and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals are awarded each year to recognize the achievements of those who embrace endeavors in which Jefferson — author of the Declaration of Independence, third U.S. president and founder of the University of Virginia — excelled and held in high regard. The law medal, and its counterparts in architecture, civil leadership and global innovation, are UVA’s highest external honors.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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