Hamilton County Sessions Court Judge Gerald Webb said some of his questionable social media posts — dubbed "legal tips of the day" — were "designed to get a laugh and to make people think about life choices."
Coming from a judge, they may elicit a little nervous laughter, but what they say about life choices may cause some to wonder why they're coming from someone sworn to uphold the law.
In them, Webb reminded readers to be "stealthy" if they go into Walmart so they won't be "caught with three steaks shoved into your pants, and suggested they should find "someplace else to hide your stash" if you're caught "pulling crack from your crack," along with a PlayStation 4, a second set of car keys, and a Michael Jackson's greatest hits CD.
We can't imagine the judge, whose dockets include criminal cases, is encouraging people to shoplift or to use and conceal illegal drugs. We do imagine he was trying to impart a message to people where they live. But they certainly leave room for interpretation.
For making such "tips," the county's first Black General Sessions Court jurist recently was given a public letter of reprimand by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct for failing to exercise discretion in his posts. The letter also cited two recent instances in which his law license was suspended briefly for failure to comply with continuing legal education requirements.
Judges, like the rest of us, must be wary of their social media posts and be cognizant of who is reading and sharing them.
The suspension of Webb's law license is troubling, too, since the instances came in 2020 and 2021, both years in which he was on the bench, and in the fact — according to the board — that he failed to follow "unambiguous" requirements of continuing law education that are contrary to expectations that judges "follow the law and uphold the integrity and dignity of the judiciary."
Humor coming from the bench — rather than on social media — was a hallmark of Webb's area Black judicial brethren, Chattanooga City Court Judges Bennie Harris and Walter Williams:
Harris, appointed to the post in 1969 upon the illness of a previous judge, was elected on his own right later that year and remained on the bench until resigning to go into private business in 1972. Williams, elected to two-eight year terms, served from 1991 to 2003.
News reports at the time called the judges colorful and unorthodox. And both, at times, faced criticism for their style.
— Harris, in September 1969, lamented to the Chattanooga Jaycees about the difficult job of being a judge: "A man went to jail today wearing one of my [campaign] buttons."
— Harris, in July 1970, said of a young couple whose charges a news report said "read longer than their wedding vows": "You two have more charges against you than Jesse James started with."
— Harris, in September 1970, said of a man bound over to the grand jury on a grand larceny charge: "He's the only boy I know who was arrested in kindergarten, has a record longer than Jesse James and is only 19 years old."
— Harris, in sentencing a man on being drunk and carrying a pistol in October 1970, said: "A little time in jail isn't going to hurt you, but it is going to be a traumatic experience."
— Williams, in June 1992, told a man who pleaded guilty to stealing a sleeping bag: "If you want to go camping, you can go camping at the workhouse and you don't need a sleeping bag."
— Williams, in June 1992, told a prisoner who'd given a wrong name to jailers: "When you play games like this, this is what happens to you. For all I know, you may be Jesse James."
— Williams, in June 1992, told a woman accused of stealing beer: "Stealing two 12-packs of Budweiser beer — it's a good brand, but [distributor] Mr. Beasley didn't want you to steal it; he wanted you to buy it."
— Williams, in July 1992, told a woman who stayed with her boyfriend after he hit her: "Apparently, you like it that way. Next time he hits you, why don't you just cook him a big meal, if that's what you like." And to the defendant, he said: "You go around her again, and you will be in so long you'll build the next workhouse and that won't happen until the next century."
Webb's letter of reprimand said his social media "posts do not meet the required criteria to exercise caution and reflection towards the court," and that "judges choosing to participate in inherently public platforms must exercise caution and carefully evaluate whether their social media communications foster public confidence in the integrity, independence and impartiality of the judiciary."
It also noted he had accepted the reprimand and taken responsibility for his actions on social media and his failure to meet the necessary licensure requirements.
Humor can have a place in the courtroom, but it shouldn't make one question — even for a second — where a judge's sympathies lie.
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