The Crisis of Conscience
Vol. 2, No. 2, 1979, pp. 3-4
Three out of five federal judges in the South and probably a majority in the nation belong to segregated, all-White, social clubs, according to a report released by the Southern Regional Council.
In a survey of the social club memberships of federal judges in eleven Southern states and four non-Southern cities, SRC found that of the 127 Southern federal district judges, 58 percent belong to a social club or association that has never had a Black or other minority member. Southern federal circuit court judges were even more likely to have segregated memberships. Sixty-one percent of the circuit judges belong to all-White clubs.
“A crisis of conscience exists in the country’s federal judiciary,” says Steve Suitts, SRC executive director and author of the report. “The prevalence of memberships in segregated clubs and associations among federal judges endangers the appearance of impartiality and fairness of the third branch of the government.”
Results of the survey, undertaken over the past nine months, show that the pattern of segregated associations is not confined to the South. Federal circuit and district court judges in four non-Southern cities – Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, and Baltimore – were only slightly less likely to belong to all-White clubs. Fifty-one percent of the judges in these cities hold such memberships.
In the Southern states, Florida had a larger percentage of judges with exclusive club memberships than any other state. The majority of federal judges in every Southern state except South Carolina belonged to all-White clubs. The judges in the district courthouses in Birmingham, Houston, Miami and Dallas represented the largest numbers of judicial officers with segregated club memberships of any Southern location in the study.
One federal judge in Miami, Florida, had memberships in six segregated clubs. Most judges belong to only one such club.
The survey does not identify by name individual judges who belong to all-White clubs. “There is no attempt here to embarrass any individual. The issue is whether any judge can properly belong to such clubs,” says Suitts, “and the problem is that segregated clubs are the preference of most federal judges.”
The report is based upon information collected from published sources, civil rights organizations, lawyers, and club members as of January 1, 1979. No judges appointed since that time were included in the study.
The issue of membership in segregated clubs was before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee recently when Memphis federal judge Bailey Brown refused to resign his membership in an all-White club in order to be confirmed for a circuit judgeship. After delaying negotiations, Judge Brown agreed to “suspend” his membership and the vote on his confirmation is expected soon.
The SRC report also cites an incident involving federal district judge David Belew who took office in May. When asked about the questioning before the Senate Judiciary by a local reporter, Judge Belew responded “that the questionnaire about niggers did not come up.” Since the first of the year, the Senate Judiciary Committee has required all nominees to the federal bench to complete a questionnaire that includes a question about membership in all-White clubs.
“Our findings demonstrate that the question of all-White club memberships must be faced and resolved by the entire federal court system,” the SRC director stated. “It is time for collective soul-searching,” he added.
The report calls for the U.S. Judicial Conference, the administrative arm of the federal courts, or the U.S. Supreme Court, to consider the issue and “the fundamental eroding effect that such widespread conduct by
judges has upon the foundation of the judiciary.”
The SRC recommends that the Code of Judicial Conduct be interpreted to Prohibit judicial officers from belonging to clubs and associations that never have had Black or other minority members.
If the court fails to address the problem, Suitts says that Congress and the President should exert “moral leadership to show that public officials – even in the judicial branch – must avoid the appearance of bias.” The SRC suggests that Congress and the President confer with members of the federal judiciary and “within the limits” use constitutional powers to require the courts’ judges to address the issue.
Also, the report asks that Congress and the President set a firm policy of refusing to nominate or confirm anyone who maintains membership in all-White clubs or associations.
Referring to two other recent SRC studies on the federal judiciary, Suitts noted that “today we have a court system that has only a handful of Black judges, maintains discriminatory employment practices that no other agency would be permitted to have, and, as we see now, has most of its judges going to dinner at segregated, all-White clubs. The integrity of the courts are in jeopardy.”
A copy of the SRC report, entitled “A Crisis of Conscience: Federal Judges in Segregated Clubs,” is available for $3.00 by writing the SRC at 75 Marietta Street, N.W., Atlanta, Georgia 30303.