Judging Judge Joe Brown
Television's Most Popular Judge Has Big Plans for Memphis.
By Rebekah Gleaves
AUGUST 21, 2000: We may be crazy. He may be brilliant. But Judge Joe Brown is anything but boring. His vision for Memphis is inspired, his observations are astute, but a moment after his lips form Solomon-esque admonitions, they launch conspiracy theories worthy of Oliver Stone. His agenda is unclear -- he may not have one -- but then again, he may have several.
As Memphis' most recognizable jurist, Joe Brown has made waves throughout his judicial career.But if Memphians want to see the judge in action now, they'll have to watch him from their own living rooms, along with the rest of the country. In April of this year, he gave up his position in Criminal Court Division Nine in order to focus on his popular, nationally televised daytime show, Judge Joe Brown. As his national reputation grows, however, harsh criticisms of his attendance record are being whispered in hushed "off-the-record" comments in his hometown. That kind of talk doesn't deter Brown. He has plans for the future.
Big PlansAre you ready for Mayor Joe Brown? Brown is already planning to run for the city's highest office in three years.
"I wouldn't run against Willie Herenton, who I think is a fine mayor," says Brown, "but he said that if he doesn't run again and I'm interested, then I would have his blessing. It looks like I will probably do that."
When asked if he would have to quit the television show to serve as mayor, Brown says he would not.
"I might do both. I mean, Clint Eastwood is a mayor. I don't know, let's just see what happens," he says.
Joe Brown seems to revel in the controversy that follows him everywhere he goes. His penchant for the dramatic has provided plenty of fodder for the Memphis media over the years, and Brown says he is still in "shell shock" over the coverage he received, particularly in The Commercial Appeal.
Though elected in 1990 to the Criminal Court bench, Brown did not gain national attention until early 1998, when he was the judge for James Earl Ray's controversial appeal. Though he was eventually removed from the high-profile case by the Criminal Court of Appeals -- which felt that he had demonstrated bias during the proceedings -- Brown's appearance on Nightline caught the eye of the president of Big Ticket Television, a production company that was looking for a judge for a television court show. Shortly thereafter, a star was born.
According to Brown, his television show was recently declared the fastest-growing syndicated program in television history, and was number eight in daytime ratings last week. But last year, just as Brown was beginning to reap the rewards afforded by small-screen success in Hollywood, trouble began back in Memphis.
Clogged JusticePicture the justice system as a funnel. Crimes are committed, arrests are made, and those arrested are dumped en masse into the top. They pool and threaten to spill out, they slide around, spiraling slowly downward, gradually easing into the neck, where, eventually, they dribble out, one at a time -- guilty or innocent. The judge is the lever that controls the flow.
Justice doesn't get a day off. Criminals work seven days a week, 24 hours a day. But as an arbiter of justice -- a controller of the lever -- Judge Joe Brown was absent from the bench more than any other Criminal Court judge, missing nearly one third of the days he was supposed to be working, even though he had more cases pending than any other judge.
Depending on who is telling the story, Brown either revolutionized the judicial system or ignored his Memphis duties in order to pursue stardom. He either ditched work 81 times in 1999, or was moving so rapidly through his Division Nine docket that his presence was simply not required in court as often. Brown vehemently denies that he missed all of those days so that he could be in Hollywood to work on the Judge Joe Brown show.
"People were looking for anything to get on to me about," says Brown. "You see, what's going on is that I streamlined things. I was doing the same amount of work, but it just took me less time. I only had one prosecutor who had to keep up."
Brown contends that because only one prosecutor was assigned to work the cases in Division Nine, instead of three or four as in some courtrooms, it was not necessary for him to be in court every day. Brown claims that the prosecutor needed time to catch up and prepare the state's case against each defendant.
"The courtroom, the courthouse, the whole system is a musical instrument," explains Brown. "If you're good, you can play that instrument. If you're real good, you don't have to read sheet music, you can play music out of your soul. You should be able to be a virtuoso with what you have. You should know the law, you should understand not just the letter but the spirit of the law. You should also be wise in the ways of the world. You should have discretion, wisdom, discernment. You should have compassion and integrity so you don't have to lift your finger to see which way the wind is blowing. I have that."
By most accounts, Judge Brown does know how to play the instrument. Many who entered his courtroom agree that he was serious and sincere in executing his judicial duties.
"He was an unusual judge," recalls Phyllis Gardner, who served as the prosecutor in Brown's courtroom for several years and recently vied for his former seat. "I think in his heart he wanted to help people help themselves. He believed that if he gave people enough chances, they would eventually get it right. But, as prosecutors, we didn't think people deserved that many bites of the apple."
Brown was known for prescribing alternative punishments to convicted defendants. His sentences included assigning a convicted forger to copy the phrase "I will not write bad paper," 100,000 times. His punishment for several defendants convicted of burglary was to allow the victims to remove items from the burglars' own residences. He was known to assign young black offenders to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or some of the works of Alex Haley.
Brown was also prone to moving those pleading guilty through his courtroom expeditiously. In studying how guilty pleas were taken in the courts of other cities, Brown discovered a way to streamline the process.
"I took advantage of the fact that the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Supreme Court said it was all right, so long as the person was properly advised, to do more than one at a time," says Brown, explaining how he took guilty pleas. "So I'd line up 10 to 15 of them [defendants], fill the jury box up with them, and I would have them all stand, swear them in, and read them their rights. I'd just have a row of them standing in front of me. That way, instead of taking three hours, it would only take 15 to 30 minutes."
Backlogs and CongestionDespite his inventiveness and self-proclaimed efficiency, Brown left approximately 2,500 cases still pending in Division Nine. Most of the other Criminal Court judges had about 250 cases pending at that time. In April, the Tennessee Supreme Court appointed retired Special Judge Terry Lafferty to serve as an interim judge in Division Nine until October of this year, when newly elected J.C. McLin will take over. Because of the backlog left in Brown's wake, all of the other Criminal Court judges voted to have the clerk stop assigning cases to Division Nine until the permanent judge could take over.
"It's easy to bail a boat out once you've fixed the leak," says Division Eight Judge Chris Craft. "We didn't want to continue to put cases in there on top of the backlog. That's why we did it. There were a lot of cases in Division Nine. We decided to each take a one-ninth share of the cases instead of a one-tenth share. I was getting 35 to 40 new cases a week. Now I'm getting one-tenth more."
Memphis' Criminal Court judges are members of an elite, hard-working club -- churning out impressive numbers of pleas and dispositions each week. All are already burdened with the never-ending supply of criminal proceedings provided by those who involuntarily enter 201 Poplar, and none seem particularly excited about having their caseloads increased.
"I'm assuming that since we agreed not to assign new cases to Division Nine, we are taking the cases that would have been assigned to Division Nine," says Division Two judge Otis Higgs Jr.
"Of course, it's affected each of our loads a little bit," says Division Five judge Joseph Dailey. "Obviously we're each feeling it."
But even as each judge seems perturbed to see his list of cases lengthened, all are hesitant to speak ill of one of their own. Each tempers any negative statements about Judge Brown's absences or late starting times with a comment about his excellent performance when he was present.
"It's against the code of ethics for one judge to comment on another judge, and the backlog could be attributed to a variety of things," says Craft. "But for whatever reason, there was a backlog in there."
Brown explains this backlog with his unusual sentencing practices.
"What I did was simply redocket everybody. I put them on probation for 30-, 60-, 90-, or 120-day intervals, depending on what they were about, so I could eyeball them," says Brown. "So I would bring them in and hold their noses to a grindstone. Well, The Commercial Appeal objected to that because those showed as pending cases rather than disposed of cases."
Defense Attorney Paula Skahan, who ran unsuccessfully for the Division Nine seat, offers an example. "On one of my cases, Joe Brown wouldn't dismiss my client until he passed the G.E.D. test," recalls Skahan. "My guy just couldn't pass the test, but Brown would call him in each month and ask him if he had passed the test yet. So, when Judge Lafferty came in, he just disposed of those types of cases to get them out of the system."
Whether or not the backlog is excusable, the numbers are staggering. While receiving a scant 91 new case assignments (compared with an average of 496 new assignments in the other divisions) Judge Lafferty was able to dispose of 722 cases from April -- when Brown left -- through June. Further, Brown's 487 dispositions for the first three months of this year pale in comparison to other divisions, which averaged 714. However, Brown's 2,616 dispositions for all of 1999, even while missing 81 days on the bench, seem to support his contention that he was still getting the job done. The average number of dispositions for the other nine divisions was 2,577. That's 39 cases less than Brown's disposed amount.
"The way it's traditionally done looks like something out of the old horse and buggy days," says Brown, describing the current Criminal Court system."Everything we do, from the preliminary hearings on, is like how it was when the judges rode circuit in a horse and buggy and there was no air conditioning. So if you just use modern methodology and some efficient court proceedings, then you can work a lot of cases."
Burning the Midnight OilOn-screen, Judge Joe Brown is both forgiving and unsympathetic. He seems to understand his plaintiffs and defendants, relating his own South Central Los Angeles upbringing to their often mottled histories. He can morph from contemplative and concerned to impatient and agitated. He is, by all accounts, an excellent television judge. In fact, by nearly all accounts, he is an excellent judge, period. Even his detractors will concede that Brown deserves credit for his innovative punishments and impartial ear. In fact, very few of his peers had anything negative to say about Brown's performance as a judge, except that in the past year he didn't perform often enough.
Defense Attorney Gerald Skahan, Paula's brother, recalls when Brown's tardiness caused a jury to vote to stay until the case was decided -- regardless of how late that might be -- so as not to take a chance on Brown arriving late, or not at all the next day.
"On my last case in his court, it was 2:30 a.m. before a decision was rendered," says Skahan, adding that there were occasions when the attorneys would go to court seven or more times before Brown would appear, and that he once had a motion in Brown's courtroom that took 32 settings.
Brown himself boasts of his late-night reputation.
"I think the record I had was 4 a.m. on a jury trial. The jury wanted to stay. They were locked up and couldn't go anywhere. As a rule, you don't do that, but you can," says Brown. "You can work Saturdays, too."
Keeping a jury past midnight is a risky move for a judge. The state Supreme Court ruled in a case early in the 1990s that a judge who keeps a jury past midnight does so at his own peril. The decision in that case was overturned because the jury was kept until just after midnight. Defense attorneys interviewed for this story acknowledged that they usually did not object to the late-night hours, because if their clients were to lose, then those hours provided grounds for an appeal. The other Criminal Court judges said they usually did not employ such late-night practices.
"I've heard of one or two cases that go on late like that. But if you get tired, you might jump onto somebody and that will get you reversed," says Division Six's W. Fred Axley.
Further, Brown's habit of canceling scheduled trials or arriving in court hours late has inconvenienced attorneys, bailiffs, juries, victims, and defendants.
"There are people who have a lot riding on that case," says Phyllis Gardner. "Every time a victim has to keep going back it puts their life on hold, and it increases the work load on everyone."
Most judges try to keep set hours, usually beginning around 9 a.m. and ending around 5 p.m., with an hour's break for lunch. "We have a starting time every morning, but no ending time. I try to end by 5 p.m., especially in the winter when it starts getting dark earlier. You're putting people in danger when you send them out in downtown Memphis after dark. We had a juror get robbed once after he left jury duty," says Axley.
Visionary, Optimist, Conspiracy TheoristIn Memphis, Judge Joe Brown is just as well known for his public gaffes as for his television appearances. In 1992, he complained publicly that influential judge Kenneth Turner should not have been permitted to try cases in Juvenile Court because Turner did not have a law degree. Brown's comments caused him to come under criticism from the state Court of the Judiciary for possibly violating the state code of judicial conduct. A full eight years later, Brown's opinions of Turner have not mellowed in the slightest. "The Juvenile Court is just the worst disgrace and shame you've ever seen," he says.
Brown has also been an outspoken opponent of jail privatization. "I think it is a sin and a shame for anybody to make one dime off of crime," he says. "I saw too often that the criminal justice system was driven by an engine of economic profiteering." He continues with an explanation of how the "corporate entities" behind prison privatization are attempting to control the work force by forcing inmates to perform tasks that laborers would otherwise be paid to do.
"It has become a labor-control device rather than a crime-control device," says Brown. "Treat labor as a commodity like wheat, corn, or cotton, and when you get a glut in a commodity, the price drops. So what you do when you have a commodity, or a labor glut, is basically four things: You cut back production, you subsidize the would-be producer, you store the surplus, and you find an alternative use for it. What we do is we store our surplus in a jail cell instead of a grain silo. The subsidy is the welfare check and the cutting back of production is all of the hell and lawlessness when kids drop out, bang out, drug out, do all kinds of things that deal with them developing the wrong outlook ... and carrying themselves so that they are not effective labor units."
But for all of Brown's theories (which include a very detailed opinion on Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination) his vision for Memphis is undeniable. He has huge dreams for his city and he has charisma and energy.
"I think we're in too much of a habit of blaming everybody else for our problems," says Brown. "It's not a white/black thing in this county. White people and black people shouldn't be at each other's throats.We should be working together, but that is not perceived as being acceptable in Memphis politics by some people."
It is apparent that Brown considers his goals to be realistic, even the seemingly far-fetched dream of Memphis becoming the third-largest city in America by the end of this century. He says the plans are being developed, and that by focusing on shipping, manufacturing, and tourism, it could happen. Somehow, Brown makes such dreams appear possible.
However, just like the judge he plays on television, Judge Joe Brown is prone to fall into anecdotal sound bites. His words often seem to come from the hip, rather than careful contemplation, and this is both the source of his charm and a potential political hazard.
"An anthropologist suggested that everybody came from out of Africa," says Brown. "Some went to Europe and got pale, some went to Asia and got yellow, some went from Asia to America and got red, some came back around and got brown. So it's time for all of us to work together and start doing what we can do to be what we can be, should be, ought to be, and shall be, and that's created all kinds of confusion with people."
So maybe he's not politically correct. Maybe he's crazy, or maybe he's brilliant -- most likely he's both. In any case, he's not likely to tone down his act any time soon. And at the rate he's moving, he may just be Mayor Joe Brown in three years, a prospect that will certainly be, um, interesting.
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