A judge in Virginia ruled that a courtroom lined with portraits of White judges could impede a Black defendant’s right to a fair trial and ordered that the images be removed before his next court appearance.
Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Bernhard wrote in an opinion this week that having people of color stand trial in courtrooms where the images on display are overwhelmingly of White judges could signal that the justice system is biased against them.
Though some people may see the portraits as a way to honor past judges for their service, Bernhard wrote, others may interpret them as another sign the judicial system is not designed to truly deliver justice – whether that’s the intended message or not.
His opinion centers on the case of Terrance Shipp, Jr., who is accused of evading police and assault on a law enforcement officer, among other counts, the Washington Post reported. Shipp is set to appear before a jury on January 4, 2021.
His defense attorney Bryan Kennedy filed a motion to have the portraits of White judges removed from the courtroom where his client’s trial is scheduled.
Bernhard’s decision to remove the portraits of White judges from the courtroom comes as some Americans are questioning why statues and monuments of racist figures are allowed to stand in government buildings.
Given the nation’s current moment of racial reckoning, Bernhard wrote in his opinion that the court needed to consider how the portraits of mostly White judges could be perceived by Black and brown people.
“To the public seeking justice inside the courtrooms, thus, the sea of portraits of white judges can at best yield indifference, and at worst, logically, a lack of confidence that the judiciary is there to preside equally no matter the race of the participants,” he wrote.
Kennedy applauded Bernhard’s ruling. But doing so, he added, was just a start.
“This opinion is important because it is continuing the conversation about the symbols we use both inside and outside our courthouses,” Kennedy wrote in an email to CNN.
The portraits could imply bias, judge says
Many of the portraits that once hung in the Fairfax County Courthouse, including those of Confederate officers and slave owners, have been removed over the years, Kennedy said. Those that remain are mostly of former judges.
Bernhard had previously removed all portraits from the courtroom he usually presides in, Kennedy added. But because of the pandemic, all jury trials are only taking place in the largest courtrooms to allow for social distancing.
Kennedy filed his motion after discovering that the room where Shipp’s trial was initially scheduled had several portraits of White judges. He said he was inspired in part by an attorney who filed a similar motion this summer, requesting that a portrait of Confederate general Robert E. Lee be removed from another Virginia courtroom where a Black man was standing trial.
With just two weeks until Shipp’s trial, Bernhard wrote that he had to decide whether to proceed as planned in the interest of time or accommodate Shipp’s request.
In his ruling, Bernhard noted that the 15 judges of the Fairfax Circuit Court all signed an action plan in August to address systemic racism in their community.
One of the points outlined in the plan was to “identify whether there are symbols in the courthouse and courthouse grounds that carry implications of racism.”
The White judges depicted in the courthouse portraits didn’t necessarily all hold racist views, Bernhard said. But the lack of Black judges reflected in the images is clear reminder that for much of history, African Americans haven’t been welcome in the judicial ranks – the county has had just three African American judges in its history, he added.
“At issue is not the narrow inquiry whether portraits depict judges who have exhibited overt personal racial animus towards African Americans,” he wrote.
“Rather the broader concern is whether in a justice system where criminal defendants are disproportionately of color and judges disproportionately white, it is appropriate for the symbols that ornament the hallowed courtrooms of justice to favor a particular race or color.”
The trial has since been moved to a courtroom that contains just two portraits, both of White men, according to Kennedy. Those portraits are set to be removed before the trial starts.
Attorney says the move is just a start
Since the protests over systemic racism this summer, Confederate symbols have been coming down across the country and in Virginia, including a Lee statue and several busts honoring Confederate figures in its statehouse.
Earlier this week, Virginia’s statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from the US Capitol.
Though Kennedy applauded the decision to remove the portraits of mostly White judges from his client’s courtroom, he said more needed to be done.
“Our work cannot stop there, however,” Shipp’s attorney told CNN. “Our criminal legal system is racially biased and we cannot settle for performative anti-racism. To achieve real justice, we need to address not only the appearance of our system, but also the internal structures that continue to create racial disparities in the criminal system.”
The office of Fairfax County’s Commonwealth Attorney, who is prosecuting the case, also commended the decision.
“The justice system has to work for everyone and Black and brown individuals need to feel comfortable in their community’s courthouse,” the office of Steve Descano, who is a Democrat, said in a statement. “We should be focused on making that a reality. I applaud Judge Bernhard and other jurists who take these matters seriously and are looking for innovative approaches to address hundreds of years of racial bias in our system.”
Meanwhile, county Republicans criticized the ruling, saying it was another example of the political left’s propensity to view people “through a narrow, racial lens.”
“Regrettably, Judge Bernhard seems to have embraced this reductive, racialist view of his fellow man,” Fairfax GOP Chairman Steve Knotts said in a statement. “We’d all do well to remember that, whether we are black or white, Christian or Jewish, immigrant or native-born, we are all equally human.”
To that sentiment, Bernhard had a response.
“While to some the issue of portraits may be a trivial matter, to those subject to the justice system that is far from the case,” he wrote in his opinion.