Virginia Judge Rules Portraits of White Judges Prevents Black Defendant From Receiving a Fair Trial

Illustration for article titled Virginia Judge Rules Portraits of White Judges Prevents Black Defendant From Receiving a Fair Trial
Photo: corgarashu (Shutterstock)

A judge in Virginia’s Fairfax County has ruled that the portraits of white judges in the courtroom prevent Black defendants from receiving a fair trial.


According to the Washington Post, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Bernhard issued an opinion on Monday saying that the portraits of the mostly white judges that have presided over the court give the perception that the system is biased. He cited a book written by Anthony Ray Hinton as partially informing his thinking. Hinton, a Black man who spent 30 years on death row before his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote that entering an Alabama courthouse and seeing nothing but white faces felt like being “an uninvited guest in a rich man’s library.”

“The Court is concerned the portraits may serve as unintended but implicit symbols that suggest the courtroom may be a place historically administered by whites for whites, and that thus others are of a lesser standing in the dispensing of justice,” Bernhard wrote in his opinion. The ruling was in response to a motion filed by Terrance Shipp Jr. that included a request to remove the portraits.

Shipp has a trial scheduled for Jan. 4 where he faces charges of eluding police, assault on a law enforcement officer, as well as other counts.

This is a nice gesture, sure, but I can’t help but feel like it’s putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. I could honestly give a fuck about some portraits; I’m more concerned about the unfair sentences that Black people often receive in the courts. The fact that so many Black men have spent decades in jail for non-violent crimes or crimes they didn’t commit is an outrage.

It’s not the portraits that convey a sense of impropriety, it’s what actually happens in the courts.

Bryan Kennedy, a senior assistant public defender and attorney for Shipp, issued a statement going into the history of racial bias in Virginia’s legal system. “Too often, the actors in the system do not look like the people who are swept up into it,” Kennedy wrote. “This ruling is a start to ensure the optics in our courtrooms are more consistent with justice, but more work is needed to improve the substance as well as the appearance of justice.”


Bernhard pointed out that 45 of the 47 previous judges were white, and stated in his opinion that the portraits of the judges will not be up during any case he presides over.

Obviously, the local GOP had some shit to say about the move. Chairman of the Fairfax County GOP, Steve Knotts, issued a statement that lowkey called the move racist?


“Judge Bernhard seems to have embraced this reductive, racialist view of his fellow man,” Knotts said. “We’d all do well to remember that, whether we are Black or White, Christian or Jewish, immigrant or native-born, we are all equally human. As a culture, we must reject all divisive ideologies and, instead, unambiguously affirm our shared humanity.”

Ain’t y’all the party that can’t even bring itself to say that police shooting unarmed Black people is a problem? Okay, so take several seats, please. “Affirm our shared humanity.” Nigga, please.


Bernhard is not the only Virginia judge to reevaluate the iconography that hangs in courthouses. A judge in Virginia’s Louisa County ordered a painting of Robert E. Lee be taken down ahead of a murder trial involving a Black defendant. Speaking of Robert E. Lee, a monument to the dude that stood in the nation’s Capitol for over 100 years was finally removed. 

It’s nice these symbols are being taken down. Now, if we can have an honest conversation about why these monuments exist in the first place, we might actually get somewhere as a country.

The stylin', profilin', limousine riding, jet flying, wheelin' and dealin' nerd of The Root.


Nunna Yorz - American Justice Is A Joke

I’ve been pleasantly surprised with VA this year. They’ve been passing some decent laws, and have a mostly Dem government starting in 2021. I agree that taking down some pictures isn’t shit in the grand scheme, but I still see the overall pattern of the people in charge trying to improve things.