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Judicial Nominee’s Selective Protection of Hostile Speech



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In a lengthy (and characteristically thorough) post on the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh expresses his concerns about one aspect of the record of Mississippi supreme court justice James E. Graves Jr., whose hearing on his nomination to a Fifth Circuit seat is scheduled for next Wednesday.  Here’s the gist:

In 2004, 2008, and 2009, the Mississippi Supreme Court considered whether state judges should be disciplined for their out-of-court statements that express hostility to particular groups. The key question in each case was whether the judges’ speech was protected by the First Amendment.

In 2004, Justice Graves took the view that a judge was not constitutionally protected against being disciplined for saying (in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, and in a radio interview) that “gays and lesbians should be put in some type of mental institute.”

In 2008, Justice Graves also took the view that a judge was not constitutionally protected against being disciplined for saying (at a judicial seminar) that “African-Americans in Hinds County [where the judge was serving] can go to hell for all I care.”

But in 2009, Justice Graves took the view that a judge was indeed constitutionally protected against being disciplined for saying (in a speech to a political organiation) that “White folks don’t praise you unless you’re a damn fool,” and “If you have your own mind and know what you’re doing, they [white folks] don’t want you around.” 

This particular mix of results strikes me as hard to defend under the First Amendment. Those results of course could be defended by some people on the grounds that the first two statements (in those people’s view) were wrong or unjustifiable, and the third statement was right or justifiable. Such a defense, though, would not be consistent with First Amendment law, under which the constitutional rules cannot turn on whether a reviewing judge agrees with the speech at issue.



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