Judge accused of racially charged comments toward prosecutor

AP News
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Posted: Apr 05, 2016 6:34 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission has charged a black circuit judge with six counts of misconduct for a series of racially charged public comments.

The charges largely stem from a months-long public feud between Jefferson Circuit Judge Olu Stevens and Commonwealth Attorney Thomas Wine, who is white. The commission found that Stevens violated judicial canons when he publically alleged that Wine wants "all-white juries," a suggestion Wine has vehemently denied.

The judge's attorney, Larry Wilder, said his client is a "passionate man" who believed he was exercising his First Amendment right to free speech by drawing attention to important issues.

"At what point do judges relinquish their rights to speak publically about important matters when they take the bench?" Wilder said.

The ordeal began in November 2014 when Stevens dismissed a jury panel because he said it did not represent a true cross-section of the community. Wine asked the Supreme Court to review whether Stevens had the legal authority to dismiss the jury. Stevens took to Facebook to question Wine's motives, according to the conduct commission's report. He suggested there was "something much more sinister" behind his motivations and said Wine "will live in infamy."

He repeated his criticism of the elected prosecutor at a presentation at a Louisville Bar Association meeting, where he again alleged Wine would "will live in infamy and he will be the butt of every prosecutor's jokes," the commission noted. He also criticized the Louisville Metro Public Defender and other defense attorneys for not publically taking his side in the battle, calling them "hypocrites" for remaining silent.

Wine asked the Supreme Court to review Stevens' comments, alleging that his "extreme distaste" for Wine would make it impossible for him to hear cases fairly and impartially. The Supreme Court has removed Stevens from several criminal trials and directed the case to the conduct commission.

Jeff Cooke, a spokesman for Wine's office, declined to comment on the charges other than to repeat that the office supports diversity in juries and asked the Supreme Court to intervene only to clarify the law so all courts in the state follow the same rules.

The commission's report also included charges related to another high-profile incident, in which Stevens criticized a 3-year-old crime victim for telling the court she feared black men as a result of the crime. The child's mother, whose family was held at gunpoint by two African-American men during an armed robbery, wrote a victim impact statement to the court saying the girl had developed a fear of black men.

Stevens said he was "deeply offended by that."

"Do 3-year-olds form such generalized, stereotyped and racist opinions of others? I think not," he wrote on Facebook. "Perhaps the mother had attributed her own views to her child as a manner of sanitizing them."

The Judicial Conduct Commission's charges were made public Tuesday. Stevens has asked that the charges be dismissed.

A hearing is scheduled for April 19, when the commission could decide he should be temporarily suspended from the bench pending a final resolution of the case.

Earlier this week, Stevens filed a lawsuit against the commission, alleging that it violated his First Amendment guarantee to free speech and alleged that any sanctions could silence public officials from speaking out about inequality.