WASHINGTON — In a highly unusual public rebuke against President Donald Trump by a sitting member of the federal judiciary, US District Judge Carlton Reeves delivered a speech Thursday calling the Trump administration a "great assault on our judiciary" and comparing the president's criticism of the judiciary to tactics used by the Ku Klux Klan and segregationists.
According to a copy of the speech obtained by BuzzFeed News, Reeves, who is black and sits in Jackson, Mississippi, extensively quoted Trump's tweets and public comments about judges and the courts (the written version includes footnotes making clear who and what Reeves is referring to) and blasted the lack of diversity among Trump's judicial nominees.
"When politicians attack courts as 'dangerous,' 'political,' and guilty of 'egregious overreach,' you can hear the Klan’s lawyers, assailing officers of the court across the South. When leaders chastise people for merely 'us[ing] the courts,' you can hear the Citizens Council, hammering up the names of black petitioners in Yazoo City, [Mississippi]," Reeves said, quoting Trump. "When the powerful accuse courts of 'open[ing] up our country to potential terrorists,' you can hear the Southern Manifesto’s authors, smearing the judiciary for simply upholding the rights of black folk. When lawmakers say 'we should get rid of judges,' you can hear segregationist senators, writing bills to strip courts of their power."
Reeves spoke at the University of Virginia School of Law, his alma mater, where he received the school's Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law. He said there was "no excuse" for the "exclusion" of minorities from the courts, pointing to the fact that only a handful of Trump's nominees to date were people of color and that a small proportion were women. He cited examples of three Trump nominees — none of whom were ultimately confirmed — who made inflammatory comments in the past about race, diversity, and transgender children.
"This Administration and a bare majority of the Senate, walking arm-and-arm, are not stumbling unaware towards a homogeneous judiciary," Reeves said.
He called on other judges to "do more to defend our bench."
"Judges, politicians, and citizens alike must denounce attacks that undermine our ability to do justice. It is not enough for judges, seeing race-based attacks on their brethren, to say they are merely 'disheartened,' or to simply affirm their nonpartisan status," Reeves said, citing responses by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., respectively, to comments by Trump.
The judge was also critical of Trump nominees who have refused to say at their confirmation hearings that the US Supreme Court's seminal desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, was correctly decided. Democrats have repeatedly raised the question at hearings — they've also asked a similar version of the question about Roe v. Wade — and most nominees have replied either that they did not think it was appropriate to comment on the correctness of any US Supreme Court precedent, or that all current Supreme Court precedent is correct.
"Think of the pattern of judicial nominees refusing to admit, like generations of nominees before them have, that Brown v. Board was correctly decided. That same Brown, which led to Alexander v. Holmes County [Board of Education], which breathed justice into the segregated streets of my Yazoo City," Reeves said. "As if equality was a mere political position."
Reeves, who was confirmed in 2010, is no stranger to the spotlight. He's presided over a number of high-profile cases. In November, he blocked Mississippi's 15-week abortion ban, writing that it was "unequivocally" unconstitutional. He's publicly criticized the lack of diversity on the federal bench before, and issued rulings in other cases that received national attention — for instance, a lengthy speech he delivered at the 2015 sentencing hearing for three white men charged with killing a black man that traced the history of racism in Mississippi.
But while federal judges have routinely blocked the Trump administration's policies in court, none have publicly criticized the president in such a direct way since he took office. Judicial ethics rules limit what judges can say in public about current affairs and how much they can wade into the political fray. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced a backlash when she criticized Trump, then a presidential candidate, in the summer of 2016, and she eventually apologized.
Reeves's criticism of the president was no off-the-cuff comment. The written version of his speech is 16 pages and features 130 footnotes citing not only Trump's tweets, but also news articles and law review articles. The speech isn't just about Trump — it's a broader exploration of the state of diversity in the courts and a call for more of it. He praised the Obama administration for expanding the number of black, female, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Native American, and LGBTQ federal judges.
"For a brief moment, there were so many 'firsts' — each one making our judiciary better reflect the best of America," Reeves wrote, noting that he became the second black federal judge ever in Mississippi when he was confirmed in 2010.
But he went on to say that the "effort to make our judiciary reflect America was as brief as it was remarkable. We are now eyewitnesses to the third great assault on our judiciary."
Reeves focused on Trump's criticism of US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was born and raised in the United States and is of Mexican ancestry. Trump in 2016 repeatedly lashed out at Curiel, who presided over a fraud case against Trump University, claiming he was being unfair because he was "Mexican" and Trump wanted to build a border wall. Reeves said that when he heard Trump's comments about Curiel — for instance, saying that Curiel was "very biased and unfair," a "hater," and questioning if the judge could make "fair rulings" — he was reminded of the late Mississippi senator James Eastland, a staunch segregationist.
"I heard those words and I did not know if it was 1967 or 2017," Reeves said.
Reeves quoted hate mail he'd received, and said it was aimed at "scrubbing the black experience from our nation's courts." He said that it was fair for judges to be scrutinized for the decisions they make, but that was different from what he believed was happening now.
"But the slander and falsehoods thrown at courts today are not those of a critic, seeking to improve the judiciary’s search for truth. They are words of an attacker, seeking to distort and twist that search toward falsehood," he said.