Judge Who Barred A Mom From Seeing Her Baby For A Year Over Unpaid Fees Resigns

With all the recent talk of sentencing reform and unfair bail across America, sometimes what it takes is an outrageous case in a small town somewhere to light a fire under activists to demand a change. And even though the resignation of a judge in Pearl, Mississippi, a suburb of the capital with a meager 25,000 residents, isn’t really anyone’s idea of a revolution, it probably means a lot to the mother at the center of the case.

Judge John Shirley of the now-dissolved Pearl Youth Court decided back in August of 2016 that some unpaid court fees were enough to separate “Mother A,” a resident of nearby Jackson, from her baby for a period of 14 months. The unidentified mom and a friend were driving through Pearl one day looking for work when they were pulled over by a police officer who discovered that both women had misdemeanor warrants for minor offenses.

Honestly, the story begins with that officer, who is also unidentified in the report from the Clarion-Ledger, the news outlet that first reported the judge’s resignation. So much begins with a cop’s interaction with a young person — will they detain them? Will they give them a warning? Initial contact with law enforcement often determines the course of a young person’s life, and most police are totally aware of that fact.

“Mother A” had her baby with her that day, and although the woman’s grandmother came to the scene immediately to collect the baby, that officer decided to change the young woman’s life by requiring her to bring the child before the Pearl Youth Court.

If it seems like I’m being too hard on the cop, let me assure you, I’ve saved most of my hate for Judge Shirley. How an arbiter of justice thinks ordering a young mother to stay away from her newborn baby is anything approaching justice is bewildering to me. But that’s just what Judge Shirley did, remanding the infant to the custody of the grandmother and imposing a goddamn NO CONTACT ORDER between Mother A and her baby until the poor (as in, without money) young woman could pay off her court fees.

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Not only could she not see her child, she couldn’t see her grandmother while the baby was present. It was just to be cruel. That’s the only explanation.

Cliff Johnson, the Director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, agreed.

“As a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi, I am no stranger to injustice, but for a judge to prohibit an impoverished mother from having any contact with her baby until monetary payments are made is shocking and repugnant. Such orders are tantamount to judicial kidnapping.”

Between two people — one cop and one judge — a young woman’s life is forever changed, her idea of justice forever skewed, her trust in authority forever hobbled by the fear of a cruelty that exists only for its own sake.


Featured image via judgejohnshirley.com