The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A Virginia judge reconsiders the portraits of judges — virtually all White — lining his courtroom walls

Standing in front of portraits of White judges during a break in a 2013 trial, defense attorney Alberto Salvado, left, confers with Casey Lingan, chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney for Fairfax County.
Standing in front of portraits of White judges during a break in a 2013 trial, defense attorney Alberto Salvado, left, confers with Casey Lingan, chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney for Fairfax County. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

IN THE course of being railroaded into a guilty verdict in his capital murder trial 35 years ago, Anthony Ray Hinton, the African American defendant, took note of his surroundings at a courthouse in Alabama. “Everywhere I looked in this courtroom, I saw white faces — a sea of white faces,” he wrote years later. “Wood walls, wood furniture, and white faces.”

Mr. Hinton’s conviction was eventually reversed by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court — though only after he had served three decades on Alabama’s death row. The travesty of justice in his case may not have been the specific result of the racial cues and codes he saw all around him. Yet “perception is often deemed reality to those participating in the justice system.”

That observation was rendered this week by a judge in a different case, in Fairfax County, who ruled that a courtroom embellished with the portraits of former judges — an overwhelmingly White cohort — establishes a symbolically skewed backdrop for the administration of justice. The judge, David Bernhard of the Fairfax County Circuit Court, ordered the portraits removed from the courtroom in which he is to preside over the trial of a Black defendant charged with assaulting a police officer, among other counts.

In Fairfax, Virginia’s most populous locality, hundreds of circuit court judges have served since the county’s founding in 1742. Three have been Black. They include Judge Dontaé L. Bugg, who, when he was elevated to the bench last year, was the first African American so recognized in a quarter-century. This, in a jurisdiction where around 10 percent of 1.15 million residents are African American, and nearly half the residents are non-White.

The point is not that White judges, past or present, are racists, though the state’s history, judicial and otherwise, is indisputably replete with racism. Rather, as Judge Bernhard framed it in his trenchant opinion, “the broader concern is whether in a justice system where criminal defendants are disproportionately of color and judges disproportionately white, it is appropriate for the symbols that ornament the hallowed courtrooms of justice to favor a particular race or color.”

Judge Bernhard’s ruling is not binding on other judges in Fairfax, let alone elsewhere, but courts generally would be wise to consider it. This summer, amid the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of a White police officer in Minnesota, Fairfax’s 15 circuit court judges unanimously endorsed an action plan to address what they called systemic racism in the community. One point in the plan called for identifying courthouse symbols “that carry implications of racism.”

That raises the thorny question of what counts as racism, whose answers will vary according to the respondent. Judge Bernhard acknowledged as much, while noting the asymmetrical cost-benefit equation of maintaining White judges’ likenesses on courtroom walls. To the public, he wrote, the portraits “can at best yield indifference, and at worst, logically, a lack of confidence that the judiciary is there to preside equally no matter the race of the participants.”

That sounds like common sense. In the long run, of course, the answer is not removing judges’ images from courtrooms but adding them — in an array of races, creeds and ethnicities that reflect the communities they serve.

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