Judge orders portraits of mostly white past judges tossed from courthouse so black defendant can get a fair trial

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A state judge in the liberal bastion of Fairfield County, Va., in the D.C. suburbs, has ordered the removal of portraits of past judges in advance of a January 4 trial of an African-American defendant because of what might amount to bad optics that, in turn, could adversely affect the outcome of a trial.

In an 11-page opinion letter which was issued in response to a motion filed by the defendant, Judge David Bernhard, a former defense attorney, observed that 45 0f the 47 judges whose portraits are on display in the courtrooms of Fairfax Circuit Court in northern Virginia are white, and the decor needs to change “in the furtherance of justice.”

“[T]he 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. 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.

“Consequently, the jury trial of the Defendant, and of any other defendant tried before the undersigned judge, shall henceforth proceed in a courtroom devoid of portraits in the furtherance of justice,” the judge concluded.

The judge also noted that his usual courtroom already has no portraits of jurists, but because of COVID social-distancing requirements, he presides in one of the larger rooms that may contain such paintings. “To the public seeking justice inside the courtrooms, thus, the sea of portraits of white judges 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,” the judge noted.

Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney Steve Descano, a Democrat, apparently did not oppose the motion, according to the judge’s opinion letter and the Washington Post. The defendant in the case is going on trial for charges that include eluding the police and assault on a law enforcement order.

According to the Post, “Bernhard joins a growing list of judges across the nation who are reevaluating symbols and paintings in courthouses that some perceive as reinforcing a painful legacy of bias in the justice system.”

The judge’s ruling that seems to cancel the portraits for symbolic reasons based on an immutable characteristic was deemed out of order on social media at least by those who apparently eschew identity politics. Here is just a sample:


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