Federal Appeals Court Reassigns Death Penalty Case Away From Allegedly Racist Judge

Judge Edith Jones

Last week, a coalition of civil rights organizations filed an ethics complaint against Judge Edith Jones of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, alleging that she claimed “racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime,” and that she made inappropriate comments about the death penalty. In a likely sign that the court is taking the complaint seriously, a panel that includes both Jones and the court’s Chief Judge Carl E. Stewart just ordered a death penalty case transferred to another panel.

The complaint against Jones, which also alleges she discussed the facts of this particular case during the remarks that included her alleged offensive statements, is currently pending before Stewart. Judge Jones dissented from the panel’s order that effectively removes her from this case.

It should be noted that the court’s order rests on several unusual factors particular to the judges that sat on the original panel. In addition to citing the complaint against Jones, the order notes that Stewart’s duties as chief judge “give him a substantial role in the consideration of any complaint of judicial misconduct,” and that the third member of the panel is Judge James Dennis, who Jones once “showed disrespect toward.” While the opinion does not specify how Jones disrespected Dennis, this is likely a reference to a 2011 hearing when Jones told Dennis to “shut up.”

In other words, this court’s order may simply rest on the idea that a panel of three judges, one of whom is currently standing in judgment of the other and a third who has a history of tension with the second, is not likely to give the impression of impartial decision making. The order adds that “no inferences should be drawn about the merits of” the complaint against Jones.

Nevertheless, the fact that the court took this action over Judge Jones’ explicit objection suggests that Chief Judge Stewart is, at the very least, concerned about how the complaint against Jones reflects upon his court.