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Amicus brief condemns racist commentary in Court of Special Appeals opinion

May 12, 2022

Judges have a responsibility to uphold equal justice under the law and ensure that their biases do not get in the way of making a fair decision. Yet racist commentary runs rampant through a recent opinion from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in Belton v. State. In response, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD) asked the Court to rescind its opinion. When that was denied, OPD asked the Court of Appeals of Maryland to order the lower court to recall the opinion and strike the racist comments. The Public Justice Center and allies recently filed an amicus brief in support of OPD’s position.

The case concerns a manslaughter in Southwest Baltimore, in which the two defendants were a mother and her son. The Court of Special Appeals’ opinion dismisses the son’s testimony that he was defending his mother’s safety by characterizing Black defendants as monsters and drawing on harmful stereotypes about Black mothers and Black neighborhoods. The opinion opens by comparing the defendants to the monsters from Beowulf who “terrorized” Hrothgar’s Hall of “modern-day Sweden.” It then provides pages of discussion on why the jury should have been barred from considering the defendants’ mother-son relationship (not an issue raised by the appeal), saying that the defendant’s mother should not be afforded sympathy or viewed as “Whistler’s Mother [reference to a painting of a white woman], calling out from her decrepitude for protection from the slings and arrows of the Monroe-McHenry open-air drug market.” The Court of Special Appeals mocked the Baltimore neighborhood where the crime took place, using the phrase “open-air drug market” ten times and making comparisons to the “Wild West”. The opinion sarcastically highlights the defendants’ young parenthood and that, on the day of the crime, they had stopped to purchase cupcakes for their daughter / granddaughter’s elementary school class.  Worse, all of this was unrelated to the issues before the Court; in other words, the court went out of its way to inflict this insulting commentary on Black Marylanders and residents of the West Baltimore neighborhood involved.

The brief from the PJC and partners explains why the tropes in the opinion are racist and argues that its “style” crosses the line into unlawfulness. Written by Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Michael Abrams, the brief explains why, regardless of what the author of the opinion might have intended, it is racist to compare Black defendants to monsters, to question whether a Black mother is entitled to maternal sympathy, and to reduce a Black neighborhood to a cartoonish portrayal of crime and danger. The brief argues that no countervailing interests justify the Court of Special Appeals’ entirely gratuitous commentary. Since filing the brief, we’ve been heartened to see the Daily Record’s Editorial Advisory Board pen an editorial condemning the Belton opinion, and we are hopeful that the Court of Appeals, which recently decided to hear the case, will decry this example of racism in the Maryland Judiciary.

Organizations and individuals that signed onto the brief include the ACLU of Maryland, the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys’ Association, the League of Women Voters of Maryland, the Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic, the University of Maryland Carey School of Law Clinical Program, Dean Renée McDonald Hutchins of the University of the District of Columbia Clarke School of Law, and Professor Michael Pinard of the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. Thank you also to the PJC’s Becky Reynolds for helping to produce the brief.