Paul Kennedy asks, “How do you react when a judge asks a defendant entering a guilty plea whether or not he believes in Jesus?”*
If you’re not from ’round these parts, that might seem like a strange question. But if you’re not from ’round here, you likely don’t have judges like John “Years of Trial Experience” Clinton. Paul introduced the story last Thursday: Judge Clinton, who has been on the bench since January, has been asking probationers if Jesus was their savior;** if they do has been offering them credit for sixteen hours toward their community service for reading a Christian religious tract: this Christian self-help book, to be specific.
Here is a sample of the conditions of probation Judge Clinton was imposing on defendants (see condition 24):
Judge Clinton Jesus Conditions
Judge Clinton says that only nine defendants were placed on these conditions. But how many defendants have gotten worse deals because they didn’t profess Christianity? How many suspect (with good reason) that they did? How many of the nine felt pressured to profess a Christianity that they did not truly feel? How many defendants decided that they weren’t going to get a fair shake in Court Four because they weren’t Christians? How many bystanders saw these forays into theocracy and figured that that was just the way things worked in Harris County?
Judge Clinton wants to help people. He has said so, and I absolutely believe him. Christians trying to bring non-Christians into the fold never intend to do them harm. But there are limits to what a judge can do in the courtroom, and asking defendants if they believe in Jesus, no matter how sincerely, is so far out of bounds that, while we can be certain that Judge Clinton’s heart was in the right place, we have to wonder what in the world was going through his head. This isn’t a rookie mistake; this is a never-went-to-law-school-nor-gave-a-moment’s-thought-to-the-Constitution mistake. If the judge is so unfamiliar with the First Amendment that this seemed okay to him until the judges’ counsel told him otherwise, what hope is there in his court for the Fourth, the Fifth, or the Sixth?
* If you’re the ACLU of Texas, you file a complaint; if you’re the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association or any of the lawyers witnessing the conduct, you don’t.
** Judge Clinton denies asking this; a reliable source maintains that she heard him do so.