The Brown Case: A Legal and Political Quandary

Intentionally or not, this weeks's Juvenile Court incident has become a cause célèbre of far-reaching consequences.


TWO QUICK UPDATES, to be elaborated on, ata: (1) Joe Brown confirms that his law school was UCLA, not Stanford; (2) The actual date and venue of his hearing for contempt charges are in limbo now , since all Shelby County judges who could hear the case have recused themselves. MTK

with NEW video, see below

Joe Browns mugshot
  • Joe Brown's mugshot
Judge Joe Brown — whose title sums up the several phases of his career on the bench, actual, honorific, and pretended — was on the other side of the law briefly this week, as a sizeable portion of the nation’s news-watching population knows by now.

And he may end up there again, depending on the result of a scheduled April 4 hearing on his contempt citation this week in Juvenile Court and his pending sentence of 5 days’ incarceration. Brown may also, paradoxically, be helped into a position of legal authority in Shelby County — depending on how his current race for District Attorney General is affected by the fallout from the incident.

Meanwhile, the jury of public opinion remains out. Some see the brouhaha as boosting Brown’s election chances by galvanizing his urban, Democratic, and largely African-American base, within which wariness toward Juvenile Court is a prevailing sentiment. Others see the episode as confirmation of a self-destructive, demagogic tendency that could implode his own candidacy, and other Democratic campaigns with it.

To review: The contempt-of-court charge is the result of an appearance by Brown in Juvenile Court on Monday — an improvised one, as it turns out, stemming from an unplanned appearance in court on behalf of a woman involved in a long-running child support case, and concluding with an angry confrontation with presiding Magistrate Harold “Hall” Horne.

Brown’s forthcoming hearing, before Criminal Court Judge James Beasley, could result in either dismissal or an order to serve the full five days or, hypothetically, some other sentence on the order of the inventive ones Brown himself used to dole out after he was elected a Criminal Court judge here in 1990.

As one example, he punished a convicted burglar by allowing the man’s victim reciprocal rights to ransack the burglar’s own dwelling so as to claim any item he fancied that he might find there.

It was that aspect of Brown, coupled with the notoriety he attracted as the presiding judge over an appeal for a new trial by the late James Earl Ray, convicted assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King, that attracted TV talent scouts. (Perhaps meaningfully, Brown, who saw himself as a ballistics expert, was removed from that case after he claimed publicly that Ray’s rifle could not have been the murder weapon.)

In 1998, he became the star of a widely watched and nationally syndicated TV show, the eponymous “Judge Joe Brown” — a title phrase which has a somewhat ironic connotation now — and for almost three years Brown was a constant commuter between Memphis and Los Angeles attempting to do justice to both of his day jobs. In 2001, he resigned the bench in Shelby County to devote full time to the TV program.

Just last year, Brown’s TV show was canceled after the breakdown of salary negotiations, and he was back on the scene in Shelby County, scouting out election prospects as a means of returning to public life. He considered a race for the U.S. Senate against Senator Lamar Alexander but was coaxed into the race for D.A. against Republican incumbent Amy Weirich by local Democrats, who saw him as a turnout magnet and a boost to the party ticket.

Relevant to the issue was the fact that the persona of Brown — eccentric but avuncular on the Criminal Court bench — had been transformed, over all the television seasons, into that of a domineering, overly passionate authority figure given to snap decisions and emotional outbursts. It was that latter figure that local audiences have seen within the last year at a variety of local events where Brown has figured as a central and contentious figure. It was that Brown who appeared in Juvenile Court.

The question has been, and remains, whether Brown’s celebrity, coupled with his intensity, drive, populist appeal, and flair for getting attention will ultimately be a political plus, or whether his instinct for brinkmanship will push him past the edge, with catastrophic consequences for himself and for the Democratic ticket. As the current issue heats up, both possibilities are being kindled along with it.

A parallel question has to do with the origins of the Juvenile Court flare-up. Brown himself says that he was in the court building “on other business” when a woman, recognizing him, approached him and asked for help on her case.

In his own scenario, a good-faith effort to assist the woman in what to Brown’s mind was a long-running case in which her rights were being ignored, led him to challenge Magistrate Horne’s actions and, simultaneously, the unresponsive disposition of the Court itself — a position which, coincidentally or not, resonates with a recent Department of Justice finding that has obvious political overtones.

The Court itself saw Brown’s role otherwise, as “willful conduct clearly intended to embarrass, hinder, and obstruct the administration of justice; and to derogate the court’s authority and dignity, thereby bringing the administration of law into disrepute.”

Magistrate Horne’s statement accuses Brown of attempting to “bait the court” and to “foment a riot.”

Relevant parts of the dialogue between Horne and Brown can be heard here:

Even as Judge Beasley will be asked to adjudicate the matter, parallel questions preoccupy political observers: Was Joe Brown acting spontaneously or out of calculation? Was his rage actual or feigned? Politically, will he have gained or lost from the incident? Has he activated his following in a legitimate cause, or ignobly caused a polarization damaging to the community?

Judge Beasley’s verdict will come on April 4th, but another verdict, that of the electorate at large, will come on August 7, date of the Shelby County general election.

Appendix: See the magistrate's order here

NEW: Here is a raw video of an impromptu press conference held by Judge Joe Brown afrer his arrest and release from jail:


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