Martha Mills: Defending civil and voting rights in Mississippi @3QD

19 Sep

My friend, Martha A. Mills, is a very distinguished trial attorney and judge. Early in her career she worked in Mississippi and later Illinois as a civil rights attorney. She tangled with Grand Imperial Wizards, an Exalted Cyclops or two, good old boys on their worst behavior, and won some and lost some. She also directed a choir, was city attorney in Fayette, tried to explain “Sock it to me, baby!” to a racist judge, sweated the Mississippi bar exam, and took kids to swim in the pool at the Sun ‘N Sands Motel, prompting the locals to triple the dose of chlorine. She’s just published a memoir of those years, Lawyer, Activist, Judge: Fighting for Civil and Voting Rights in Mississippi and Illinois (2015). I’ve reviewed it around the corner at 3 Quarks Daily.

The first case she tried involved Joseph Smith, president of the Holmes Country NAACP. He was accused of running a red light. It was his four witnesses against the ticketing highway patrolman. The case was tried before a justice of the peace, who had no legal training (Mississippi doesn’t require it of JPs). Here’s how that went (112-113).

* * * * *

When we got to the town hall, Joseph Smith, myself, and the four witnesses were told to sit down and wait a few minutes. A police officer came over and asked if it was okay if he gave the oaths to the witnesses, as the JP did not know how. I said it was fine. The trial started with the officer intoning “Hear Ye, Hear Ye” and all that (just like an old British movie) and swearing in the witnesses. And then the JP looked at me and at the highway patrolman who, in addition to having written the ticket, was also acting as prosecutor.

“What am I supposed to do next?”

I answered, “The normal procedure would be for the state to present its case first, and then us.”

“That sounds fine, carry on,” he smiled.

The highway patrolman went on to tell his story–adding that he did not give the ticket because of race or anything like that.

I then put on our witnesses who gave uncontradicted testimony that they knew Smith and his car, were right in the vicinity where they could see everything perfectly, and they saw Smith come to a complete stop behind the stoplight. Smith, of course, personally denied running the stoplight. At that point, both the highway patrolman and I said we were finished. The JP and the patrolman got up and started to walk off, discussing the case.

I overheard the JP, “Now son, how do you think I ought to decide this here case?”

Upon hearing that I followed them, “You honor, this is all highly improper. I have to be present at any conferences you have about this case!”

“That’s fine,” both men nodded at me, but it did not temper their conversation at all.

After some argument between us, the highway patrolman said if I did not think his case was strong enough, he would put on another witness. The witness was the police officer who had administered the oaths. He testified that he was in the vicinity of the violation but that he did not see whether Smith stopped or not. That added evidence seemed to convince the JP, and he gave Smith a fine. We immediately posted an appeal bond. I felt like I was in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. It was an unbelievable farce.

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