The Mississippi supreme court on Friday ruled that the First Amendment protects comments of a George County court judge who said he believed gays and lesbians should be put in a mental institution. The Mississippi Judicial Performance Commission last year asked the supreme court to publicly reprimand and fine Judge Connie Glenn Wilkerson, citing him for judicial misconduct. Lambda Legal, a national gay and lesbian rights group, filed the complaint against Wilkerson. Wilkerson's remarks about gays and lesbians were published in a 2002 letter to the George County Times, a weekly newspaper in Lucedale. In the letter, Wilkerson expressed his opinion about a California law that grants gay partners the same right to sue as spouses or family members. "In my opinion, gays and lesbians should be put in some type of mental institute instead of having a law like this passed for them," Wilkerson said in the letter. Wilkerson said then that the letter represented his feelings as a human, not as a judge. He said he didn't mean to offend anyone.
In its 5-2 decision on Friday, the high court said it would not punish Wilkerson for the remarks. Justice Jess Dickinson, writing for the court, said the statements made by Wilkerson constituted religious and political/public issue speech specially protected by the First Amendment. "Here, Judge Wilkerson expressed his views on a political/public interest issue--the rights of gays and lesbians," Dickinson wrote. "We therefore may not impose sanctions unless we conclude, under the specific facts of this case, that the restraint the Commission seeks to enforce is 'narrowly tailored' to achieve a 'compelling state interest.'" Dickinson said it was difficult to conclude that Wilkerson's comments posed a threat to judicial integrity when courts elsewhere have upheld the right of judges to criticize the judicial system itself. "There are millions of citizens who believe Judge Wilkerson's religious views are exactly correct," Dickinson wrote. "There are still millions more who find his views insulting. Whether he is right is not the issue here. It is, rather, whether this court can--consistent with the First Amendment--prevent Judge Wilkerson from publicly stating these religious views. We hold that, under the facts of this case, we cannot."
Wilkerson, 65, has served as justice court judge for seven years. In 2002 the Mississippi supreme court amended the state's Code of Judicial Conduct to specifically call on judges to avoid expressions of bias or prejudice, including demeaning remarks based on sexual orientation. Justice George C. Carlson Jr., in a dissent, said the issue was the supreme court acting on behalf of the public to ensure exemplary conduct among its judges. Carlson said citizens will appraise the integrity, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary by what they see in all public and private activities of the judges. "There can be no doubt that the judge in today's case made demeaning remarks in a public letter...expressing bias or prejudice against a targeted sector of the population which includes individuals who may be expected to come before his court," Carlson said. "His off the bench, but highly public conduct, implies an inability to fairly hear all segments of the community."