This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
Judge Jefferson Griffin hasn’t served on the North Carolina Court of Appeals very long—he was only first elected last November along with several other Republicans swept in on Donald Trump’s coattails—but that doesn’t appear to be dissuading him from using his new platform to issue assertive statements that venture into politics and public policy.
Consider, for example, Griffin’s concurring opinion in the case of State of North Carolina v. Kevin Lee Johnson, that was issued yesterday. The case involved a search by an Iredell County Sheriff’s office lieutenant who found cocaine on an individual he stopped for allegedly failing to wear his seat belt. The defendant appealed his trial court conviction on the grounds that the bodily search the officer conducted was unlawful. By all indications, the officer was white and the suspect was Black.
In yesterday’s opinion, all three judges on the panel (including Griffin and fellow recently elected Republican Jeffery Carpenter) agreed that the search was unlawful and that the evidence obtained as a result of it should be suppressed.
What stood out from Griffin’s concurring opinion, however, was not his vote in the case, but a broadside on the issue of racially-biased law enforcement that Griffin decided to launch in the direction of former state Chief Justice Cheri Beasley.
Beasley, you may recall, spoke publicly, courageously and quite accurately last year in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd about the horrific and undeniable reality that has long confronted Americans of color—and, in particular, young Black men—when it comes to policing and criminal justice. As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported on June 3 in the aftermath of protests that rocked the nation:
“We must do better,” she said. “We must be better. Too many people believe that there are two kinds of justice. … In our courts, African-Americans are more harshly treated, more severely punished and more likely to be presumed guilty.”
Beasley later established a commission to examine the blatant racism that has long permeated the state’s criminal justice system.
Griffin it seems, however, was none too happy with this fact and has apparently been spoiling to vent about if for some time. And when the lawyers for the defendant in the illegal search case raised the issue of race, he seized on that as grounds to attack Beasley.
Indeed, in his concurring opinion—a locale usually reserved for fine legal distinctions—Griffin decided to republish several paragraphs of a speech Beasley delivered last June in which, among other things, she called for “a plan for accountability in our courts” and training judges to “recognize our biases.”
Weirdly and disturbingly, Griffin was and is bothered by such talk, and by the fact that lawyers for a Black defendant would raise it in his case. We know this because he then used the remainder of his opinion to attack Beasley for wrongfully venturing into public policy.
“The speech by the former Chief Justice states our justice system does not treat people equally based on the color of their skin. It also encourages and charges the courts to become an active body by involving our judicial branch in policy decisions. The judiciary should at all times practice judicial restraint. … We are fortunate to live in the United States of America where the law is applied the same to all citizens.”
To which all a body can say in reply is, “What planet did this man grow up on?”
The bottom line: Word on the street is that Griffin is an ambitious politician who, despite being one of the youngest and least experienced judges on the Court of Appeals, is already planning a run for a Supreme Court seat in the near future.
Sadly, it appears we already have a strong inkling as to what his campaign will look like.
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