Topic: Professions & Institutions

Judicial Humor in Texas
(10/29/2004)

David Kelley, the writer/producer who gave us "The Practice," "Ally McBeal" and other TV shows that have portrayed lawyers and judges as lunatics may not be as excessive as some of his critics believed. Earlier this year, a New York attorney was fined and disciplined for barking like a dog to intimidate a witness. OK, maybe Kelley would try that one, but even he would have rejected as incredible the recent conduct of a Texas judge if it had been floated during a script conference.

Defendant Billy Wayne Williams had jumped bail and failed to show up for his trial before Judge Faith Johnson for aggravated assault. He was convicted in absentia, and when Williams was finally caught and brought before the judge, she greeted him with glee. "You just made my day when I heard you had finally come home," Johnson exclaimed. "We're so excited to see you, we're throwing a party for you!" Indeed, the courtroom had been festooned with balloons and streamers in anticipation of his arrival. Then a colorful cake, decorated with his name and one candle (to represent his year on the lam) was brought out, and everyone had a piece.

And then Judge Johnson sentenced Billy Wayne Williams to life in prison, and he was led away in handcuffs.

Let us put aside, for the moment, the concepts of dignity and decorum in the courtroom, which I think we all can agree Judge Johnson shot and left for dead with her elaborate prank. The American penal system long ago removed mockery and ridicule from its repertoire, as dehumanizing and gratuitously cruel. Granted, Billy Wayne had some hard time coming (he choked his girlfriend until she passed out), but is a human being and an American citizen, and the loss of his freedom has to be treated with solemnity, not hijinks. Perhaps the most difficult concept in ethics is that respectful and caring behavior is due to all people, not just the admirable ones or the ones you like. But when we are talking about an official of the state, the concept acquires added significance. The state is power, and the ethics of power requires integrity, judgement, and caring. To use the power of the state to humiliate an individual, as Judge Johnson did, is no less than abuse.

"It's fun for you people, but not for me," Williams reportedly told reporters as he was being taken to his cell. Judges should not have "fun" while taking liberty away from a citizen, no matter how much it may be warranted, and executing the law should not be a joke. This was a rank violation of judicial ethics.

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