Monday, March 19, 2007

History Lesson: Segregated Court

Interested in history? Civil rights?

I just finished reading a student piece about a little-known trial court, Miami's Negro Municipal Court (1950-1963), a municipal court that handled only cases against black defendants arrested by black patrolmen. Ernesto Longa, Lawson Edward Thomas and Miami's Negro Municipal Court, 18 St. Thomas L. Rev. 125-38 (2005).

Who could support a Jim Crow court? Interestingly, many of the leaders of the black community. In a city with no black judges and blatant unfairness to black defendants, the Negro Municipal Court -- presided over for many years by Miami's first black judge -- gave defendants a fair deal. (It also protected black victims, treating crimes against them more seriously than the white courts did.)

Longa concludes his piece:

The proponents of an all-black court did not see the court as a panacea but simply as a tool to make "the Negro a little larger citizen" within the bounds of segregation. Within the court, many black defendants experienced due process and equal protection under the law for the first time. Black defendants were presumed innocent until proven guilty, given an opportunity to be heard, and, most importantly, treated with humanity and dignity. Ironically, Judge Thomas's resolve to combat the disparate treatment black defendants experienced in the white dominated courts solely based on the race of the victim resulted in tougher sentences for black violent offenders. Further, court proponents contended that it was Thomas's toughness toward violent offenders that exemplified the court's service to the black community. While the court was accurately criticized as second rate because of the jurisdictional limitations imposed by the white establishment, the justice rendered to individual black defendants by the all-black court was first-class. The historical importance of the court is not what it was incapable of doing, but rather how court proponents used the court to both serve the best interest of the black community and advance the cause of individual civil rights.
Id. at 138.

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