The Honorable Carlton W. Reeves, a 55-year-old judge in Mississippi, did something last week no other federal judge has done in the Trump era.
Evoking the history of segregation in the South, Reeves publicly lambasted the President for his attacks on judges, questioned Trump’s commitment to diversity on the federal bench and called upon judges to do more to defend the judiciary.
While sitting Supreme Court justices, notably Chief Justice John Roberts, have pushed back on Trump’s attacks at times, saying there are no Democratic judges or Republican judges, and some judges in federal courts have used harsh language to block some of his more controversial policies, no other federal judge has launched such a broad assault.
Reeves did so during a speech Thursday at the University of Virginia without ever mentioning Trump’s name.
For some, the speech also represented a rare – and unwelcome – entry into the political arena from the federal bench, where judges publicly attempt to stay away from partisanship, regardless of their policy views.
In what could be an unprecedented move, Reeves publicly criticized the lack of diversity of the President’s judicial nominees, using the speech as an entreaty to examine the role of diversity on the bench.
Trump’s two Supreme Court nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, both attended the same elite high school in the suburbs of Washington, for instance.
“We have as many justices who have graduated from Georgetown Prep as we have justices who have lived as a non-white person,” Reeves said, referring to Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor.
Reeves is more than a bystander on diversity on the bench. He is the second African-American to be appointed as a federal judge in Mississippi and has spoken about the hate mail he has received since becoming a judge.
He was among the first full class to enter an integrated first-grade classroom at a public school in Yazoo City, Mississippi. He graduated from Jackson State University and the University of Virginia School of Law in 1989 and was nominated to the US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi by President Barack Obama.
At his confirmation hearing in 2010, Sen. Richard Durbin noted that Reeves’ nomination was historic.
“You are the first African-American nominated for a federal judgeship in the State of Mississippi in 25 years, since Judge Henry Wingate was nominated by President Reagan in 1985,” Durbin said.
Durbin asked Reeves to talk about the fact that Mississippi at the time had the highest percentage of African-Americans of any state and what the nomination meant.
“People need to see that they have a chance,” Reeves said, ” that they, too, can one day come to the great hall of the Senate and be nominated by a president to be a judge.”
From the bench
Reeves’ opinions have included a 2018 holding that struck down Mississippi’s abortion law that sought to forbid most abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. He also struck down Mississippi’s law banning same-sex marriage in 2014.
Before last week, however, he was perhaps most well-known for the sentencing of three young white men for the death of a 48-year-old African-American James Craig Anderson.
“On June 26, 2011, four days short of his 49th birthday, the blood of James Anderson was added to Mississippi’s soil,” Reeves said in 2015, according to a court transcript. “A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget.”
A frequent guest of his alma mater, Reeves told the University of Virginia School of Law in 2017 that he knew that becoming a judge “would be the best thing to create a greater good in Mississippi.”
“It’s not about creating new right. It’s about breathing new life into the Constitution that we have sworn to uphold,” he said.
Supporters of Reeves say his life’s experience are important.
“He has seen in his lifetime what it means to have an independent judiciary,” said Stanford Law professor Pamela Karlan, who was a teacher of Reeves during law school and has remained close.
“It’s not as if he wants judges to rise up,” she said. “But they should be independent and do their job and stand up for the judiciary.”
“What Judge Reeves identifies is that the experiences and perspectives of judges is important to interpret and apply the law,” University of Virginia School of Law professor Kim Forde-Mazrui, a good acquaintance of the judge, said in an interview. “The public often thinks the law is a set of rules that judges mechanically apply, but interpreting the law inevitably involves drawing on the judge’s own experiences and understanding of the world.”
Last week, Reeves weaved through the history of the South and expressed deep criticism about the lack of diversity on the judiciary.
“When people of every race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation can see their own experiences reflected in our highest institutions, they receive hope and inspiration beyond measure,” Reeves said.
“When courts look like the country they represent, that – more than any claim to pedigree or prestige –is what instills public confidence in the courts,” he added.
In the speech, Reeves also spoke about assaults in history against the judiciary, such as when the Ku Klux Klan “responded to the threat of democratic justice” and in the 1950s when segregationists launched a “massive resistance” against the judiciary.
Speaking of the Trump era, Reeves said, “we are eyewitnesses” to another “great assault on our judiciary.”
Using Trump’s own words against him, Reeves said, “And when the Executive Branch calls our courts and their work ‘stupid,’ ‘horrible,’ ‘ridiculous,’ ‘incompetent,’ ‘a laughingstock,’ and a ‘complete and total disgrace,’ you can hear the slurs and threats of executives like George Wallace echoing into the present.”
Washington lawyer Jonathan Turley, who also has been critical of Trump’s attacks on judges, says Reeves was wrong to speak out.
“Reeves had justifiable anger over Trump’s attacks – a view shared privately with me by many judges,” Turley wrote on his website.
He said, however, the views are “clearly inappropriate for a sitting federal judge.”
“It is the price that must be paid for an Article III lifetime appointment as a federal judge,” Turley wrote. “Judges must accept that their political views must remain private and their activities strictly apolitical.”
Mike Zubrensky, chief counsel of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, has known Reeves since the early ‘90s and says that Reeves likely fears for the future of the judiciary.
“He’s not a political guy, he is not someone who worked on campaigns or ran for office, Zubrensky said in an interview, ” but he likely worries what will happen to the judiciary if the attacks continue. “
“You risk losing your independence and credibility if you are viewed as a bunch of politicians in robes, and that is the depiction the president has been making in talking about judges, ” Zubrensky said.
Reeves is not the only judge to criticize Trump for personal attacks against judges. Two current sitting Supreme Court justices have done so as well.
During his confirmation hearing, Gorsuch was asked about the President’s criticism of one judge.
“When anyone criticizes the honesty or integrity of the motives of a federal judge, well I find that disheartening,” Gorsuch said in 2017.
After Trump referred to a judge who had ruled against him as an “Obama Judge,” Roberts issued a rare statement to The Associated Press last year.
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
But Reeves speech was of a whole other tone.