October 29, 2013 2:53:33 PM
Nicole Clinkscales has an active interest in the Columbus schools. She is a PTA leader and the sister of Columbus Municipal School District board member Angela Verdell. She regularly attends at CMSD board meetings and frequently speaks at those meetings.
There is nothing wrong with any of that.
But on Oct. 24, Clinkscales turned to her Facebook page to attack CMSD Board Member Aubra Turner, inferring that Turner, who like Clinkscales is black, is an Uncle Tom. Later, engaging with a commenter, she referenced abolitionist Harriet Tubman's quote about a mindset that kept blacks mentally enslaved. Tubman's comment, which Clinkscales quoted, compared such thinking to a snake that should be killed.
Public figures are often the object of bitter criticism, of course, but what makes this incident different is one specific detail: Clinkscales is a municipal judge in Columbus.
And that makes a huge difference.
As a society, we hold some people to a higher standard of behavior than we do others. And if there is a hierarchy for proper conduct, a judge must reside at the very top of that list.
By virtue of their positions, judges have enormous authority. As a result, citizens need to know that a judge is, above all other things, fair. We do not merely expect our judges perform their duties without regard to race, religion, ethnicity, socio-economic status and many other factors. We demand it.
When a judge, by his or her public deportment, displays a bias for or against any of those groups, it is a matter of grave concern for everyone.
Clinkscales' Facebook post and comments make it clear what she expected of board member Turner and her displeasure at Turner's refusal to meet those expectations.
In the black community, being called an "Uncle Tom" is a demeaning charge and one that is difficult, if not impossible, to defend against. While Clinkscales did not use the term specifically, her reference -- "tom" foolery -- is an obvious reference to the phrase. There can be no mistaking the judge's view when it comes to the school board: Race trumps conscience and the black members of the board should be unified in their decisions.
In Mississippi, there are two entities that govern the behavior of judges, and while the Mississippi Bar Association and the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance (MCJP) would not comment on Clinkscales comments Monday, there are precedents that show a judge's freedom of speech is not always unlimited.
In 2004, a George County judge's letter to the editor in a local paper disparaging gays was upheld by the state's Supreme Court as protected speech. But in 2009, a Leflore County judge whose reference to "white folks" in a public forum was found by the MCJP to have cast doubt on the judge's integrity, independence and ability to be fair and impartial. The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the MCJP ruling. The judge had resigned before the Supreme Court heard the case.
We believe Clinkscales has committed a similar breach of confidence with her Facebook posts and comments.
This is a bell that cannot be unrung. In her courtroom, Clinkscales routinely hears cases involving whites and blacks. Her Facebook comments bring into question her ability to hear those cases in a race-neutral manner.
The remedy is obvious: Clinkscales should resign and or be removed from her post.