Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Judge Peter Cahill was way, way out of line to suggest Monday that the words of Rep. Maxine Waters – one of many leaders calling for protests against police killings and racial injustice – violated her oath of office and might somehow poison the murder trial of Derek Chauvin.
It’s nothing short of outrageous that Cahill told Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, after closing statements, that “Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.”
Not even close.
Jurors in the Chauvin case, like all jurors, have been instructed to disregard media accounts of the trial and focus solely on the evidence presented at trial. The Chauvin jurors have been partially sequestered and supervised in the courthouse throughout the trial (though they have gone home at night), and as of Monday are fully sequestered, staying overnight in a hotel, separated from their phones and electronic devices – measures deliberately intended to place them in an information bubble where comments from politicians cannot be heard.
Despite these sensible measures, Cahill appeared visibly angry over the fact that Waters came to Minnesota, traveled to areas where protestors have gathered, and did what politicians often do – urge people to stand up for what they believe in.
“We’re looking for a guilty verdict and we’re looking to see if all of the talk that took place and has been taking place after they saw what happened to George Floyd. If nothing does not happen, then we know that we got to not only stay in the street, but we have got to fight for justice,” she said to reporters, according to video posted on social media.
And if there is no guilty verdict? “We got to stay on the street. And we’ve got to get more get more active, we’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business,” Waters said.
Judge Cahill should not need a history lesson to realize that Waters’ long career has for some time included non-violent civil disobedience and calls for people to join in.
As Martin Luther King Jr. put it: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
King-style nonviolent confrontation was the goal, meaning and strategy of the nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of Derek Chauvin. It’s the spirit of the demonstrations Waters and others have attended.
It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s constitutionally protected speech – and it’s certainly not an attack on the integrity or functioning of the courts. But you’d never know that from Judge Cahill’s reaction.
“I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch and our function,” Cahill said. “I think if they want to give their opinions, they should do so in a respectful and in a manner that is consistent with their oath to the Constitution, to respect a coequal branch of government.”
Sorry judge, that’s not how it works. Polite, respectful demonstrators don’t get notice, don’t get heard and often don’t get results. Non-violent civil disobedience, on the other hand, has a venerable history of changing minds and transforming society.