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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009

A Judicious Judge

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When someone’s professional reputation is unfairly smeared in public, it can be self-defeating to try to mount a defense. Any attempt to fight back merely spreads the unjust charge farther and wider.

No, I’m not talking about former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who stormed national TV talk shows like Tom Cruise promoting a bad movie. Sleazy politicians deserve whatever they get, no matter how nice their hair looks.

But former Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Wall absolutely did not deserve to be portrayed as an intemperate judge who would belittle defendants with racist language.

Two of three judges in a state Court of Appeals decision ordered a new sentencing hearing for a case before Wall, Claiming he used language that was "sarcastic and demeaning" that could suggest "the sentence was imposed at least in part because of race."

The story received wide play because Wall used the term "baby mama" in a pre-sentence conversation with convicted drug dealer Landray Harris.  Wall was alluding to the unmarried mother of Harris' 2-year-old child, a woman who attended college and worked to support Harris, who was unemployed.

"where do you guys find these women, really, seriously," Wall asked.  Is there a club?" Harris responded that his girlfriend wasn't the club type.

The media love news that can be summed up in a snappy phrase, so they story immediately becaue "The Baby Mama Decision."

A disclaimer: I know Joe Wall personally.  He serves on the board of the Benedict Center, a nonprofit agency in Milwaukee that runs an education and drug treatment program as an alternative to incarceration for women in conflict with the law.  The executive director of the Benedict Center is Kit Murphy McNally, my wife.

It is because of what I know of Wall personally that I know exactly how he ended up in the middle of this controversy.  Unlike Milwaukee County judges who run their courts like assembly lines to fast-track faceless defendants into prison, Wall actually engaged in real conversations with each individual before him.  Defense attorneys told Wall it was one of the few times a judge ever treated their clients as human beings and inquired into their lives.

It was in such a conversation that Wall used the phrase "baby mama," two words out of 26 pages of transcript of back-and-forth between the judge and the defendant.  Because of Wall's work with the Benedict Center, I also understand how the discussion of the woman in Harris' life came up.

Many of the women who come to the Benedict Center on prostitution and drug charges have been exploited by men throughout their adult lives and frequently through years of childhood sexual abuse. 

Wall was talking about a real social phenomenon of black men, many of whom have been denied legitimate employment as a result of racial discrimination, learning to rely on the illegal drug trade and the exploitation of women for their livelihoods.

Addressing Poverty

What’s truly absurd about Wall being smeared as racist is that he was one of the few Milwaukee County judges ever to use his position to challenge community leaders to address the poverty issues that are the root causes of crime.

Wall spoke extensively throughout the community and published essays in a local newspaper about the shocking poverty statistics in Milwaukee County and the willingness of society to throw away the children of poverty he saw before him as a judge in Children’s Court.

In one such essay, Wall called on state and local leaders to spend more on the front end to prevent crime by making sure children were kept in good health, received the finest educations possible in safe school environments and had role models and mentors to support and care about them.

“If families are failing, and they are, we, the community, need to assume a larger role in the everyday lives of these children,” Wall wrote. “They are, at the end of the day, our children, our future.”

Many of Wall’s judicial colleagues agreed, but they told him he was foolish to go public with such socially conscious views. It was an open invitation for some “hang ’em high,” tough-on-crime conservative to run against him at election time, they said.

The cruelty of the unfair accusation that Wall had racially demeaned a criminal defendant was compounded when Wall had to endure the humiliation of being defended by right-wing radio commentators who rather like racist judges who demean defendants.

Wall, who now works as an assistant U.S. attorney, is one of the few insiders in the criminal justice system with the courage to speak out on the need to reform the institutions of society to lift up those born into poverty instead of beating them down further.

The tragedy would be if this controversy prevents him from continuing to speak out or prevent others from hearing what he has to say.

What’s your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.