A Fairfax County judge in Virginia has ruled that the portraits of “mostly white” judges in a courtroom must be removed for black defendants because their presence comes off as racist.
According to Fox 5 DC, Terrance Shipp Jr., a black man, was scheduled to stand trial on January 4 who is charged on several counts of assault on a law enforcement officer and eluding the police. The initial courtroom in which he was set to stand trial was found to be too small for the county’s COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.
As such, his case was moved to a larger courtroom — one where several portraits of former judges adorn the walls.
The judge presiding over the case, Judge David Bernhard, stated in a court opinion last week that the presence of the portraits of the mostly white judges can create a perception of bias against defendants of colour.
"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 others are thus of lesser standing in the dispensing of justice,” Bernhard stated. “The Defendant’s constitutional right to a fair jury trial stands paramount over the countervailing interest of paying homage to the tradition of adorning courtrooms with portraits that honor past jurists.”
“Too often, the actors in the system do not look like the people who are swept up into it,” said Shipp’s attorney, Bryan Kennedy. “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.”
However, not everyone agrees with the judge’s ruling. Defence attorney Mark Dycio told the Washington Post that he did not believe judges and juries were affected by the portraits of previous judges.
“Notwithstanding the presence or absence of portraits in a courtroom, I believe judges and juries have the ability to be fair and objective,” he said.
"Our judges, our prosecutor, or defense bar, our public defenders, our probation officers, we all need to think about what the ultimate goal of our judicial system is and that is trust in the system," said defense attorney Ed Nuttall to Fox 5. "And when someone says hey, I’m walking into this courtroom and I have a visceral reaction to all these portraits of these white men and women and a few black judges, but very few black judges on this bench over the last 50 years that has to be addressed."