Miss. high court reprimands ex-judge for ‘disparaging insults’

Friday, February 6, 2009

JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Supreme Court has ordered a public reprimand for a former Leflore County Court judge for remarks he made while running for re-election in 2006.

In a speech before the Greenwood Voters League, a predominately African-American group, Judge Solomon Osborne said, as quoted by The Greenwood Commonwealth: “White folks don’t praise you unless you’re a damn fool. Unless they think they can use you. If you have your own mind and know what you’re doing, they don’t want you around.”

Osborne argued his comments were free speech.

A majority of the Supreme Court, however, disagreed yesterday, saying his remarks were not protected by the First Amendment.

“Judge Osborne’s disparaging insults went well beyond the realm of protected campaign speech expressing views on disputed legal and political issues and discussing the qualifications of the judicial office for which Judge Osborne was campaigning,” Justice George C. Carlson Jr. wrote for the majority in Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Osborne.

Three justices, however, dissented in part.

“Judge Osborne’s speech — offensive though it was — constitutes protected political speech, and this Court, in my view, is powerless to punish him for it,” said Justice Jess H. Dickinson in one dissent. Dickinson was joined by Justices James W. Kitchens and James E. Graves Jr.

In addition, Kitchens wrote a separate opinion “to express [his] conviction that, where our ethical rules collide with the freedom of speech, our canons must yield to our constitutions.”

“In my view, Judge Osborne’s comments were far beneath the dignity of a judge,” Kitchens said. “But just as clearly, his comments addressed a political issue, and not just any political issue, but the seminal political issue of this state’s history: race. Therefore, any provision of legal force that punishes Judge Osborne for that speech violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 3, Section 13 of the Mississippi Constitution.”

The Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance had sought Osborne’s removal from office. But the Supreme Court rejected that proposal, noting that Osborne had resigned.

Meanwhile, a Minnesota judge has been reprimanded for remarks he made about a defendant in his courtroom.

The state Board of Judicial Standards said Judge Richard G. Spicer of the Dakota County District Court “used disparaging speech” about a defendant last Sept. 17. The board also said yesterday that Spicer spoke directly to people sitting in the courtroom’s gallery about the conduct of both the defendant and himself.

The board said the judge’s “name-calling of the defendant and his informal polling of the gallery was improper.”

Spicer was appointed to the court in 1991 and has since been elected three times.

Through a court spokesman, Spicer said he was prohibited from commenting.

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