Judge's Facebook posts may violate judicial code

November 7, 2013 11:09:28 AM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


A look at Columbus Municipal Court Judge Nicole Clinkscales' Facebook page portrays someone who sees herself as a part of a city power struggle, often using references to race to define competing factions.  


Clinkscales, who has served on the court since 2010, has made at least four references to race in the last six months on her personal Facebook page and has endorsed candidates for public office. Both actions could be violations of the code of judicial conduct. 


Throughout her Facebook posts and comments, Clinkscales, who is black, describes a combative atmosphere in the city, using imagery such as lynchings, cotton field laborers, separate-but-unequal treatment and bondage. 


While Clinkscales' page can only be viewed by her Facebook friends, The Dispatch accessed the page through one of Clinkscales' 2,044 Facebook friends. A University of Mississippi School of Law professor said that judges have no expectation of privacy even on their private Facebook accounts. 


When asked for comment Tuesday, Clinkscales' secretary said the judge had no comment. 


On June 18 Clinkscales wrote, "People are no longer hanged from trees. They are crucified of their character with lies and innuendo." In the post, Clinkscales alluded to former superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell. Liddell, who is black, was fired from the Columbus Municipal School District on June 17. 


On June 20, three days after Liddell's firing, Clinkscales took to her Facebook page declaring a "modern day mutiny" was taking place and encouraged "her people" to "walk in authority." 


"What is happening now is a modern day mutiny!" the post read. "If my people don't wake up and walk in the authority God has given, you can very well look up and be right back in bondage. And just as before -- they will shove their will down your throat and never give it a second thought! Stop pandering and apologizing and RULE! #runteldat"  


Clinkscales commented on the post on June 21 and said, "But we can't expect the media to accurately reflect the feelings of our community. Time for another plan." She then commented, "And don't misunderstand me. I have an unabashed love for my people. I know the power we have and it's time to walk in that privilege!" 


In a Sept. 19 post, Clinkscales referenced working in cotton fields and "separate but unequal" treatment. 


The post read, "I am simply amazed that those who created and established the very institutions and systems that those who were still in the cotton fields during their inception now operate in are complaining about how those systems (i.e. business travel, discretionary spending, police power) are playing out? Give me a break from the manufactured concern. It's a classic case of separate and unequal. In other news, 'it ain't no fun when the rabbit got the gun!' #don'tbefooled." 


On Oct. 24, the judge made a post accusing school board member Aubra Turner of "'tom' foolery." On Oct. 29, Clinkscales again commented on her post regarding board member Turner. "What they would like is for me to do the same. Just shut up and/or leave. I am doing neither at least not for the foreseeable future. Somebody has to be willing to liberate and educate and even if I have to take the darts in the process, so be it!" 


Several of her Facebook friends responded to Clinkscales' comment and she again responded, saying, "Prayer must come first. Then we have to move! We've sat by too long and allowed them to manipulate and desecrate our community. Enough is enough!" 




No expectation of privacy for judges 


Commentary under Canon 2 on the Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct states, "A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. A judge must therefore accept restrictions on the judge's conduct that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen and should do so freely and willingly. The prohibition against behaving with impropriety or the appearance of impropriety applies to both the professional and personal conduct of a judge." 


Ben Cooper, a professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law and an expert in social media, said a judge does not have an expectation of privacy on social media. 


"The direction that we get from the American Bar Association ethics opinion, as well as other ethics opinions from other states, is nothing that judges say on Facebook should be construed as private. Judges should assume that everything they say on Facebook is public." 


Cooper, who has not seen Clinkscales' posts, said despite Clinkscales' privacy settings on her social media page, the public can still gain access to her posts. 


"Once you put it out there it's just too easy for it to be transferred along to other people, even if you only show your posts to your friends," he said. "Obviously those friends can then pass along what you say on your page." 




Clinkscales backs candidates 


In addition to her racially charged remarks, Clinkscales has also made at least four public endorsements for political candidates or a political party on her Facebook page since November 2012. According to Canon 5(B) of the Code of Judicial Conduct, a judge is prohibited from publicly endorsing a political candidate. 


"Canon 5 prohibits a judge or judicial candidate from endorsing a candidate for public office," said Darlene Ballard, executive director of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance. Ballard said the code of conduct applies to municipal court judges, despite the fact that the position can be considered part time. 


On Jan. 12, Clinkscales encouraged people on her friends list to vote for Angela Turner Lairy in a special election. Lairy sought the District 16 State Senate seat vacated by the death of her father Bennie Turner earlier this year. 


The post read, "Good Morning FBF's! Yes, it is cold and raining! But DON'T FORGET to VOTE TODAY! ...Cast your vote in the Senate District 16 Special Election. I will be voting for Angela Turner Lairy! ..Let's not lose this seat!" 


In November 2012, Clinkscales showed her support for President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party during Obama's bid for reelection. On election day, Clinkscales posted, "I wanna live in a blue state for a change! To quote Day-Day "I'm trying to see what that be like!" 


Cooper, who again stressed that he had not seen the posts, said Clinkscales support of a political candidate on her Facebook page could be viewed as judicial misconduct.  


"It sounds like it might be a problem under Canon 5 in the code of judicial conduct because the canons forbid judges from endorsing political candidates," Cooper said. 


Clinkscales is one of two municipal judges for the city. She and fellow lawyer Marc Amos were appointed by the city council in 2010. Each judge hears approximately 150 cases monthly, the majority of which are misdemeanors. Clinkscales and Amos also conduct bond hearings for those accused of felony crimes. They were unanimously reappointed by the city council in June. There is not a term limit.

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.