In 1966 Joseph A. Jordan won acclaim throughout Virginia is one of four young black lawyers who cressed the lawsuit that ended the state's poll tax.
Two years later, Jordan, confined to a wheel chair by World War II inquiries, was the first black elected to Norfolk's City Council.
A powerful figure in Norfolk politics, Jordan developed a national reputation as a civil rights leader and a champion of the plight of Virginia's early one million black residents. Back in Atlanta, I always considered Joe Jordan aninspiration to me," said Julian Bond, a Georgia civil rights leader.
Last year Jordan, vice mayor of Norfolk, resigned from the City Council to accepted an appointment as the city's first black General District Court judge.
Today, after only 20 months on the bench, the 55-year-old Jordan has managed to stir his hometown deeply, and not in the ways many say they expected. The baker's son who came to symbolize black rights to many has become, his critics allege, a harsh sentencer of the poor who not infrequently tramples on the rights of the accused.
One morning last week Jordan handed out sentences that lawyers here say are typical: 30 days in jail to a man accused of taking $2.19 worth of canned corned beef from a supermarket, 30 days to a sailor who took a 89-cent frozen pizza, 30 days to a seasman who took a 59-cent jar of mayonnaise, and six months to a man who took food valued at $8.36 wholesale from a hospital.
More than his strict sentences - most lawyers say other judges here never give jail sentences to shoplifters with no prior convictions - many are troubled by the way Jordan handles defendants in his paneled courtroom here.
"Normally, where complaining witnesses don't appear, Jordan proceeds to interrogate them [the defendants] anyway", said State Del. William P. Robinson, a political science professor.
"There are some very serious constitutional questions there," said Robinson, the only black in Norfolk's legislative delegation and one of Jordan's strongest champions in the state legislature, which elected him a judge.
Jordan dismisses objections to his practice of proceeding with cases in the absence of complaining witnesses - a practice that lawyers say violates an accused person's constitutional right to face his accuser in court. "There's something wrong with a system that allows for too much technical innocence," the Brooklyn Law School-educated Jordan said as he sat in his office in the Norfolk Public Safety Building.
"What kind of system is it that says just because you are an accused, you are a super-citizen and you come first and everyone else second?" he asked. "I don't believe the Constitution says that.
Jordan similarly offered no apology for his sentences. "I have no concern at all with being firm," he said. "It is vitally important that people understand on the first instance that this must not be done. This is where to say 'no' and mean it."
Those views and Jordan's actions on the bench, however, have jolted some of his backers and have done little to quell controversy over the judge. "I pray that I will never have to go before him," said Milton A. Reed, editor of a black newspaper in Norfolk and an ordained minister. "I pray for anyone who has to go before him."
Some black leaders here worry that Jordan's actions may have set back their hopes of getting another black named a judge here. Robinson, who pushed for Jordan's election by the legislature to a six-year term, expresses disbelief at some of the Jordan's actions and refuses to say if he will support Jordan for another term.
That could be a decision he will not have to make. Since August it has been common knowledge among lawyers here that Jordn is the subject of a secret investigation by the state Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission. The commission could recommend that Jordan be censured, removed, or retired from the bench.
The commission, as is its custom, will not discuss whether Jordan is under investigation, leaving him as he puts it: "to sit here under attack."
Some of Jordan's supporters say he is not the only controversial judge here.
Last month, Vernon D. Hitchings Jr., the judge who presides in the courtroom directly beneath Jordan's, drew headlines when he first issued and then withdrew a contempt citation to a woman who had criticized him in a newspaper letter.
In contrast to the sometimes brusque Hitchings, Jordan is a softspoken man, described by those who know him as courteous and introspective. "He sits [in court] very quietly, never raises his voice, never abuses anyone, but then he sends them to jail for six months," said one lawyer-critic of Jordan's.
Last August, for example, there was the marshmallow case.Jordan convicted a young woman, Susan Lee Foster, of taking a marshmallow out of its supermarket bag and eating it.
Jordan gave the woman 30 days in jail, but on appeal a Circuit Court judge reduced the sentence to 10 days and suspended it, her attorney, Richard Taves, said.
Jordan first reputedly became a target of inquiry by the state commission last November when he fined a man, Arthur Kleinfelder, whose invalid mother had failed to repair her home's rusting gutters. Kleinfelder, arguing that he had no ownership interest in the house, appealed.
According to his lawyer, city prosecutors then dropped the charge. Because the matter is reportedly under investigation, both Jordan and Kleinfelder refused to discuss it.
But the case that probably aroused the most comment here came last Aug. 9 when Cheryl Gillian, 18, was charged with walking on an East Ocean view beach after midnight.
The park ranger who arrested her did not appear in court in testify. Ordinarily, such cases are dismissed for lack of evidence, but, according to a lawyer present at the time, Jordan instaead proceeded to question and eventually convict and sentence Gillian to 30 days in jail.
The lawyer, Berry Wills, said the accused was never told she could remain silent, have an attorney appointed if she lacked the funds to hire one or that, in Willis' words, "the case should be thrown out for lack of proof."
"At least five attorneys were in court at the time who witnessed it." Willis said. "I asked a couple of them if I had missed something. And they said, no, that is what happened."
Despite the controversy, Jordan is well thought of among certain segments of this military town. Among merchants, for example, he is widely popular for the strict sentences he gives shoplifters.
Michael Stredler, the husky manager of Norfolk's downtown Peoples Drug Store stands on an elevated platform near the front of his store, surveying the Friday night shoppers who stream in. Most of Stredler's public housing known as Tidewater Park. Sredler describes the shoplifting in his store as "atrocious."
"I'll tell you," he said, "the thieves are beginning to notice. Every case Jordan gets, he gives fines and 30 days in jail. But I'll glad to see it because for once these people are being brought to justice in some way."
Some black community leaders here, who profess concern at Jordan's actions, also express empathy for the judge. "I'll tell you what's happening," said Norfolk NAACP president George Banks, who has known Jordan for 30 years. "He has been connected with black-on-black crime, where poor people are being robbed. Now he's got an opportunity to do something about it, to break this shoplifting."
Norfolk's largely white male bar was against Jordan's appointment from the outset and interviews with numerous lawyers here indicate that their opposition, if anything, has grown in the past 20 months.
"There are people who think Joe Jordan is God's gift to humanity," said editor Reed. "There are other people who know the other side of him (and say) that he is vindictive, insecure, and rather malicious . . ."