Legally Speaking: Justice - Not Just Blind, But Color Blind

John G. Browning Jun. 27, 2007, 10:14am

A Fort Worth judge is under fire for comments he allegedly made in court suggesting that African-Americans are superior athletes because of a genetic legacy dating back to the slave trade.

R. Brent Keis, the presiding judge of Tarrant County Court at Law No. 1, hears a wide variety of civil lawsuits in his courtroom. But during an April 16 hearing in a personal injury case, one lawyer claims that Judge Keis crossed the line of impartiality and revealed a bigoted side, making statements that have led to a complaint being filed with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

According to Dallas attorney Nuru Witherspoon, during the hearing Judge Keis addressed Witherspoon's clients and explained that in conservative, Republican Tarrant County their car wreck case faced certain risks. Witherspoon, who is African-American, says that Judge Keis told his clients that if they wanted to "bet on black", it was their choice.

Judge Keis denies that there was anything racist behind the comment, maintaining that he routinely uses a roulette wheel analogy when cautioning litigants about the uncertainty of the legal process.

"I tell them they're gambling," Judge Keis says, but acknowledges that in this case "I should have said, 'You can bet on red.'"

But the comments didn't end there, according to Witherspoon.

He says that the judge asked about the origins of his first name. Upon learning that it was African, Judge Keis allegedly went off on a tangent about "slavery and the Middle Passage." According to Witherspoon, Judge Keis expressed the belief that slavery had made blacks better athletes, and that with sicker, weaker slaves being thrown overboard from slave ships, the stronger survivors passed on the genetic basis for black athletic achievement.

Judge Keis doesn't deny making the comments, but denies that he is a racist and says that he's heard similar statements from professional athletes, including former Dallas Cowboy running back Calvin Hill. Judge Keis also maintains that his comments were misunderstood.

While he stops short of calling Judge Keis racist, Nuru Witherspoon was concerned enough about the judge's statements to initiate a complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the governing body that investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.

The lawyer also says that the comments caused his clients to question the judge's ability to be fair and ultimately made them decide to settle the case rather than proceed before Judge Keis. "They didn't feel they had a chance," says Witherspoon.

The 55 year-old Judge Keis, who has been on the Tarrant County bench since 1989, maintains his innocence but at the same time would like the chance to apologize to Mr. Witherspoon.

In reporting on this incident, the Dallas Morning News said that Judge Keis has no prior record of disciplinary history before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Unfortunately, the Dallas Morning News' legal reporting leaves something to be desired. In fact, in 2003 Judge Keis was disciplined by the Commission for violating Texas' judicial ethics codes.

Canon 2B of The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct mandates that a judge cannot "lend the prestige of his office to advance the private interests of the judge or others." Yet in April 2002, Judge Keis – clad in his judicial robe - appeared in an advertisement for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The ad, which ran in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and later in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, promoted the school's Lay Studies Program. Judge Keis had studied for a master of arts in lay ministries at the school, "to help him be more comfortable sharing his faith."

Judge Keis evidently was comfortable sharing his faith with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Although he maintained that he "did not specifically endorse the quality, content or value of the school or the program," Judge Keis said that saying 'no' to the seminary's request to use the photo "would be equal to my denying Christ." He cited Matthew 10:32-37 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13, saying "I did not agree to do this to become a marty ... but I did so because it was required by my faith."

After the Commission issued a private warning (one of the punishment options available to it) to Judge Keis in December 2002, the judge accepted the sanction but remained unbowed. Although he acknowledged the Commission's "secular authority," Judge Keis insisted that his religious convictions had not changed and that the impending sanction constituted "religious persecution" and violated his First Amendment rights.

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary applauded Judge Keis' "faith and willingness to endure sanction for Christ," saying through spokesman Greg Tomlin that "Judge Keis understands that faith in Christ is expressed in every part of his life. Faith in Christ is not checked baggage that he leaves at the office or courtroom door."

Tomlin also speculated about the possibility that the disciplinary action smacked of religious persecution, wondering if it had been prompted "because he has appeared in his robes or ... because he's appeared in his robes for a seminary." In fact, Texas judges have been disciplined in the past for similar actions that had no religious overtones whatsoever.

In April 2001, for example, a district court judge received the identical punishment for appearing in his judicial robes in an ad for a community college.

Judges are supposed to be fair and impartial, and to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Litigants and attorneys alike must have confidence that they come to the court on equal footing, and that regardless of whether they are white or black, Christian or non-Christian, they are equals in the judge's eyes.

Coming across like the judicial equivalent of Jimmy The Greek, or wearing one's religious affiliation on one's sleeve, hardly instills that confidence.

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