Judge in trouble for making racial remarks

May 22, 2008 2:02:25 PM PDT
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has disciplined a judge for telling an attorney that blacks were better athletes because their ancestors survived the slave trade. The commission issued a public warning to Tarrant County Court-at-Law Judge Brent Keis, the middle level of discipline. The lowest is an admonition, and the highest is a reprimand.

"Although Judge Keis insists that he did not intend his comments to be racially insensitive or offensive, it is clear that his remarks were inappropriate in the setting in which they occurred and that they could easily be misinterpreted by anyone unfamiliar with the judge," the commission said.

In a prepared statement, Keis said he was "frankly surprised at the commission's negative view" of how he handles himself in court. Keis, a judge since 1989, said others "misinterpreted my attempt to engage their lawyer in an off-the-record casual conversation."

Dallas lawyer Nuru Witherspoon, who is black, filed a complaint last year after a pretrial hearing on a personal injury claim stemming from a traffic accident. Witherspoon's clients were suing an insurance company.

Keis' comments about the quality of Witherspoon's case also caused the attorney and his clients to doubt the judge's impartiality and created a "coercive and intimidating" atmosphere, the commission wrote in its ruling last week.

The commission ordered Keis, who is white, within the next 120 days to complete an eight-hour course on racial sensitivity, diversity and the perceptions of a trial judge's comments, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in Thursday's online edition.

Keis made the comments about a year ago during a pretrial hearing. Witherspoon said the judge first asked about the origin of his first name, which is African, although the attorney is from Georgia.

Then Keis mentioned "the Middle Passage," a reference to the second leg of the trade triangle that slave ships made.

"Judge Keis further stated that we are bigger and stronger athletes because weak slaves were thrown overboard and never made it to the Americas," Witherspoon wrote in his complaint.

Keis then gave his standard speech about the risks of going to trial instead of settling out of court. The judge reportedly told the attorney's clients -- who are white -- that Tarrant County is made up of Republicans who think like him, and said they could risk litigation and "bet on black."

Keis earlier said that he often uses a "roulette wheel" analogy when talking to people about the legal process and didn't mean anything racist.

It is not Keis' first encounter with the conduct commission.

Keis was privately disciplined by the state in 2003 for violating the ethics code by appearing in ads for the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Keis appeared in his judicial robes in an ad promoting the Lay Studies Program. The ad appearing in several publications mentioned that he was working on a master's degree in lay ministry.

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