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Maryland Supreme Court condemns racist commentary in lower court decision, calls on judges to consider the impact of biases when writing opinions

June 28, 2023

In a noteworthy decision, the Maryland Supreme Court reminded appellate judges that they 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. The Court’s opinion condemns racist commentary in an opinion from the Appellate Court of Maryland in Belton v. State, reflecting concerns raised by Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD), who represents the defendants, and an amicus brief filed by the Public Justice Center and allies.

The case concerned a manslaughter in Southwest Baltimore, in which the two defendants were a mother and her son. The Maryland Supreme Court’s decision responds to the Appellate Court’s opinion, which characterized the Black defendants as monsters and drew on harmful stereotypes about Black mothers and Black neighborhoods. The lower court’s opinion opened by comparing the defendants to the monsters from Beowulf who “terrorized” Hrothgar’s Hall of “modern-day Sweden.” It then provided 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 Appellate Court 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 highlighted 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 Appellate 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 explained why the tropes in the opinion are racist and argued that its “style” crossed the line into unlawfulness. The brief, written by 2021-2022 Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Michael Abrams, explained 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 argued that no countervailing interests justified the Appellate Court’s entirely gratuitous commentary.

The Maryland Supreme Court decision agreed with much of the brief, dedicating significant space to condemning the use of racial stereotypes and discussing the potential impact of the language in the Appellate Court opinion. The high court’s decision repeatedly calls on judges to be mindful of how biases can influence the writing and interpretation of their rulings: “Judges must vigilantly guard both their actual impartiality and their appearance of impartiality. In the appellate context, this requires careful contemplation of how the language of our opinions may be taken, including how this country’s tortured racial history may make otherwise benign literary and artistic references land on modern ears.”

The Maryland Supreme Court declined to decide whether the Appellate Court deprived Mr. Belton of due process through the opinion’s language and instead ordered a new trial to reconsider Mr. Belton’s conviction for voluntary manslaughter on other grounds. Nevertheless, the Maryland Supreme Court did state, in general, that biased language in a court opinion can deprive a person of their right to due process: “If the language of an appellate court’s opinion could cause a reasonable person to question the participating judges’ impartiality or otherwise reasonably suggests bias on the part of the court, then the party potentially injured by that partiality or bias has been deprived of due process, and the court has abused its discretion.”

The Court’s decision is remarkable for its pointed guidance to judges to check their biases, and we hope it will have an impact in future cases.

Organizations and individuals that signed onto the amicus 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, then-Dean Renée McDonald Hutchins of the University of the District of Columbia Clarke School of Law (now Dean of the University of Maryland Carey 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.