Bits and Bobs about the First Amendment and Judicial Activism, Part One

Two stories of note that I want to discuss today, both involving the First Amendment.

The first is from an area not too far from my offices–Cocke County, Tennessee.  It’s a bit of a doozy, so try to follow along with the initial details and hope they don’t make your head spin.

Two parents have a dispute about their child’s last name.  Mommy and daddy can’t agree, so they take their dispute before a local Child Support magistrate.  The magistrate balks when she hears the child’s first name–“Messiah,” and orders the child’s name changed to “Martin,” and places in her “Statement of Facts and Reasons Supporting Name Change” filed August 13, 2013 that “This court finds that it is not in the child’s best interests to keep the first name, “Messiah.”  “Messiah” means Savior, Deliverer, the One who will restore God’s Kingdom.  “Messiah” is a title held only by Jesus Christ. ”

In an interview with WBIR-TV, the Magistrate defends her decision with the reasoning “The word Messiah is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ.”

The name change issue was reheard in short fashion by the Cocke County Juvenile Court Judge and this impermissible violation of the Establishment Clause fixed, but that doesn’t change things from getting worse.  I knew this was going to end badly the first time I read about the story, and it has–this time for the Magistrate.  Tennessee’s Board of Judicial Conduct–the governing body that oversees the Volunteer State’s judiciary–filed formal charges against Lu An Ballew October 23rd.  The offenses listed are as follows: undermining confidence in the judiciary, manifesting prejudice and partiality, and impermissible commentary on a pending case.  Lu An Ballew has thirty days to respond.

Was Magistrate Ballew out of line when she made those comments and issued such statements in court documents?  Absolutely.  Establishment clause issues aside, this is a serious case of judicial overreach.  Those who bring their issues before a trier of fact to hear the issues surrounding their conflict, and make a ruling on their conflict–and nothing else. Judges–those entrusted with interpreting the law–should not be allowed to inject their personal beliefs into a case to the point where the matter at hand becomes about THEIR foibles instead of the parties.  Each case is about the parties, not the trier of fact, and the judiciary’s ethics rules state clearly as such.  Overstepping the boundaries of the case and placing more stock in your own belief structure than the law–that’s the stuff of trouble.

Magistrate Ballew’s ruling was well meant.  I don’t believe she bore malice toward the parents for their name choice, and her decision reflects that in her statements–she stated her further rationale was to protect the child from societal harm.  Cocke County is a very strong Christian Fundamentalist area, just like much of what is deemed the “Bible Belt,” and the social implications of walking around with the name “Messiah” might involve some trouble for the child.  The “might” isn’t justifiable in this instance to go “right,” and the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct clearly agrees in this case.

Were Magistrate Ballew’s comments to WBIR-TV out of line?  I would tend to think so.  Our confidence in the judiciary is based on a belief that judges (and Magistrates) are to be impartial and fair triers of fact.  They are to refrain from displaying their prejudices in their hearings, and they are to refrain from injecting their personal belief structure into their work.  Now, after three years’ experience with the judiciary, I can say that this realistically doesn’t happen.  Judges and Magistrates are human, and human nature means one cannot just check strongly held personal beliefs the moment a black robe adorns one’s shoulders.  Judges do have a higher standard of accountability than the average citizen to at least TRY to display impartiality and a lack of prejudice or preference, and the fact that Magistrate Ballew went on television to defend her “case for Christianity” with the above quoted remarks doesn’t show much of an effort.  If the Board of Judicial Conduct let this slide, it would only mean a chilling effect for parents seeking to have their conflicts resolved before any judge in Tennessee.

To my readers: please be advised I am NOT advocating an anti-religion stance.  Nor am I saying Magistrate Ballew is wrong in being a Christian member of our society.  What I’m saying is that when you rule on a case, you should at least make an effort to stick to the matter and keep your personal opinions to yourself.  The Courts expect it, the people expect it, and our society expects it.  I understand the decision, and I understand the rationale–but this case was a clear example of a fairly high level authority figure overstepping boundaries and therefore deserves some attention.

That’s all for this post.  Part two to come shortly.

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