Judges dismiss misconduct complaint against appellate judge over alleged bias remarks

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WASHINGTON — A council of federal judges has dismissed a misconduct complaint against a conservative appellate judge who was alleged to have made racially discriminatory remarks at a lecture on the death penalty.

Judge Edith Jones of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allegedly said at a speech in February 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania law school that certain racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime, and are prone to commit acts of violence and to be involved in more violent and heinous crimes than people of other ethnicities.

Thirteen individuals and public interest groups filed a judicial misconduct complaint against Jones, and Chief Justice John Roberts assigned the case to the appeals court in Washington at the request of the chief appeals judge in New Orleans. The dismissal, which took place in August, was publicly disclosed Wednesday.

In a lengthy inquiry, a three-judge panel of the judicial council was unable to find any recording of Jones' remarks, forcing them to rely on varying recollections of audience members about precisely what Jones said.

"It appears likely that Judge Jones did suggest that, statistically, African-Americans and/or Hispanics are 'disproportionately' involved in certain crimes and 'disproportionately' present in federal prisons," said the panel.

"But we must consider Judge Jones' comments in the context of her express clarifications during the question-and-answer period that she did not mean that certain groups are 'prone to commit' such crimes," the panel of judges said.

"In that context, whether or not her statistical statements are accurate, or accurate only with caveats, they do not by themselves indicate racial bias or an inability to be impartial," said the panel. "They resemble other albeit substantially more qualified, statements prominent in contemporary debate regarding the fairness of the justice system."

Attorney Maurie Levin, who represents the complainants, said the ruling "essentially credits Judge Jones' stale recollections over the testimony of a lawyer and five law students who set down their recollections not long after the lecture. There is simply no way to understand that as a fair weighing of the evidence." The complainants are appealing to the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the judicial council.

The three-member panel said evidence also shows that Jones used the term "red herring" when expressing her view that a challenge to the death penalty on the ground that "it is administered in a racially discriminatory manner is nonviable."

However, in light of Supreme Court precedents, "we again cannot find that such a view indicates improper bias or misconduct," said the panel.

Jones told the panel that her comments on race came in the context of saying that the Supreme Court in the case of McCleskey v. Kemp had rejected the idea that statistics about racism could be used as a defense.

"That was all I said as I best recall at this point," Jones told the panel.

Jones, a native of Philadelphia, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, and was the appeals court's chief judge for seven years, until October 2012.

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