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Judge Rules Black Defendants Can’t Get Fair Trial In Courtrooms With Portraits Of White Judges

Fairfax, VA – A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge has ruled that black defendants won’t be able to receive a fair trial in his courtroom unless all portraits of white judges hanging in the space are removed.

In an opinion letter issued by Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David Bernhard on Sunday, the judge said he could not “permit a jury trial to take place in a courtroom gilded with portraits of jurists,” especially when those portraits “are overwhelmingly of white individuals peering down on an African American defendant whose liberty is the object of adjudication.”

The judge’s opinion was issued in response to a motion filed by a black defendant who asked for the “Portraiture Overwhelmingly Depicting White Jurists” to be removed from the courtroom where his trial is expected to be held, according to the letter.

Bernhard said that because judges are “disproportionately white,” and “criminal defendants are disproportionately of color,” he couldn’t help but wonder if “it is appropriate for the symbols that ornament the hallowed rooms of justice to favor a particular race or color.”

He noted that other judges might disagree with him and advocate for “celebrating the service of prior judges,” but that he will not hold any court proceedings until the portraits are removed from the courtroom he is using.

“In weighing the interests of honoring past colleagues against the right of a defendant to a fair trial…the Defendant’s constitutional right to a fair jury trial stands paramount over the countervailing interest of paying homage to the tradition of adorning courtrooms with portraits that honor past jurists,” Bernhard wrote.

The judge further asserted that the portraits are only “of benefit to a few insiders” who may have worked with or have been friends with the judges depicted.

“To the public seeking justice inside the courtrooms, thus, the sea of portraits of white judges can at best yield indifference, and at worst, logically, a lack of confidence that the judiciary is there to preside equally no matter the race of the participants,” Bernhard opined.

Removing the white judges’ portraits does nothing to “detract from public confidence in the judiciary,” he added.

Bernhard further argued that it doesn’t matter whether or not there is any racist intent behind the portraits.

“Perception is often deemed reality to those participating in the justice system,” he wrote.

He also raised concerns over whether or not seeing the white judges’ portraits might “bias the jury for or against the defendant” or the victims.

“The display of portraits of judges in courtrooms of the Fairfax Courthouse is based on a non-racial principle, yet yields a racial result,” Bernhard concluded. “Consequently, the jury trial of the Defendant, and of any other defendant tried before the undersigned judge, shall henceforth proceed in a courtroom devoid of portraits in the furtherance of justice.”

Bernhard, who has been on the bench since 2017, is a former defense attorney who describes himself as a “White Hispanic,” according to The Washington Post.

He was born in El Salvador to parents of German and Jewish descent, and sought asylum in the U.S. in the 1970s, The Washington Post reported.

Bryan Kennedy, the attorney for the defendant who filed the motion, said racial bias has a long history in Virginia.

“Too often, the actors in the system do not look like the people who are swept up into it,” Kennedy told The Washington Post. “This ruling is a start to ensure the optics in our courtrooms are more consistent with justice, but more work is needed to improve the substance as well as the appearance of justice.”

Fairfax County GOP Chairman Steve Knotts said the decision was further evidence of liberals’ tendency to view people narrowly through the lens of race, The Washington Post reported.

“Judge Bernhard seems to have embraced this reductive, racialist view of his fellow man,” Knotts told the paper. “We’d all do well to remember that, whether we are Black or White, Christian or Jewish, immigrant or native-born, we are all equally human. As a culture, we must reject all divisive ideologies and, instead, unambiguously affirm our shared humanity.”

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Written by
Holly Matkin

Holly is a former probation and parole officer who is married to a sheriff’s deputy. She is a regular contributor to Signature Montana magazine, and has written feature articles for Distinctly Montana magazine.

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