Today's American Horror Story comes to us from Pearl, Mississippi, where local Judge John Shirley of the Pearl Youth Court barred a woman from seeing her baby for 14 months over a few hundred dollars in unpaid court fees. This Wednesday, she was finally reunited with the 18-month-old toddler. The last time they were together, the baby was 16 weeks old.

In August 2016, “Mother A,” an African-American resident of Jackson, was traveling through Pearl while looking for employment. She was a passenger in a friend’s car, and her child rode with them in a car seat. When the car was stopped for a minor traffic violation, it was discovered that both adults had outstanding warrants for routine misdemeanor offenses. Upon arresting the women, the officer contacted DHS claiming that the child was “abandoned” as a result of the women being detained. The baby’s grandmother arrived on the scene within minutes, yet the officer still insisted that the child be taken before Judge Shirley at the Pearl Youth Court. Less than half an hour later, Judge Shirley awarded custody to the baby’s grandmother. An order was later entered prohibiting “Mother A” from having any contact with her baby until court fees were paid in full.

This summary comes from the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Last week, "Mother A" contacted the MacArthur Center, which threatened to sue the City of Pearl on behalf of "Mother A" and several other women separated from their children over unpaid fines. Within hours, Judge Shirley resigned, Mother A regained custody of her child, and the Pearl Youth Court was closed. This blatantly illegal violation of these women's Constitutional right to due process went on for years, because the city made damn sure there was never another lawyer in the room to call them out on it.

And if you'll permit us to editorialize, THIS IS WHAT LOCAL CONTROL LOOKS LIKE. When small towns call for more local control, this is what they mean. It's poor people, in isolated areas, with no power suffering unconstitutional abuse with no oversight. Or, as Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Center put it,

As a Mississippian with deep roots in this state that I love, I am deeply troubled by the many ways in which poor Mississippians, especially African-Americans, are victimized by Mississippi’s legal system. We have litigated matters involving excessive bail, illegal jailing of misdemeanor offenders for unpaid fines, and the refusal to provide poor criminal defendants with counsel, and now we see that not even the right to raise one’s children is beyond the reach of the injustice that befalls poor Mississippians. All of these abuses are imposed by judges who are either openly hostile to poor people or completely insensitive to the unconstitutional disparity between how the Mississippi legal system deals with those who have money and those who don’t.

All the Pearl Youth Court cases will now be transferred up to the Rankin County Court. But before you get excited for a nicetimes happy ending, take a look at the Rankin County Judges.

THIS GUY AGAIN? Are you freaking kidding us?

Anything more to add, Mississippi?

Oh, Judge Shirley's in private practice, too? You mean he tries cases before the Youth Court? He acts as defense counsel in the same room where he sits on the bench? THAT'S COOL! Sure, the vast majority of jurisdictions bar judges from practicing law, especially in the actual courtrooms where they preside. But you do you, Mississippi. This local control is working out great! Especially for poor, brown people lucky enough to live in The Magnolia State.


[Clarion LedgerMacArthur Justice Center / WaPo]

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Liz Dye

Liz Dye lives in Baltimore with her wonderful husband and a houseful of teenagers. When she isn't being mad about a thing on the internet, she's hiding in plain sight in the carpool line. She's the one wearing yoga pants glaring at her phone.


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