Photo credit: Ed Gray

By Ed Gray, Host of The Commish Radio Show, Human Rights Activist, and Human Rights PhD Candidate at Southern Methodist University

Over the past few years, Judge Amber Givens of Dallas County has landed directly in the crosshairs of the Dallas legal and political establishment. Her crime? Successfully lobbying for the inclusion of an anti-discrimination policy as part of the Dallas District Court Plan (DDCP), which establishes practices for the appointment of attorneys for indigent defendants. Judge Givens was compelled to advocate for the language after seeing social media posts refer to Black people participating in Dallas protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd as “animals” and “savages.”

Who wrote those social media posts, and what do they have to do with indigent defendants? Those posts were written by various lawyers from the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (DCDLA), attorneys who are called upon by the county to represent indigent individuals in the District Courts where the duly elected Judge Givens presides.

These lawyers, backed up by the DCDLA board, didn’t like the fact that a young Black female judge was able to have language added to the DDCP that jeopardized their case assignments, i.e., one of their income flows. The anti-discrimination policy deems that attorneys found using “inappropriate language and conduct that manifests a bias or prejudice based on race, ethnicity, sex, age, religion, sexual orientation, etc.,” would be deemed ineligible to receive county court appointments to represent indigent individuals.

In retaliation, the DCDLA launched a calculated campaign to smear Judge Givens’ reputation, with the “short-term goal of getting her charged (or at least investigated) with a crime, with the long-term goal being damaging her elections prospects,” said one board member in public discovery. The strategic campaign has involved the filing of grievances with the Republican-dominated State Commission on Judicial Conduct and a recusal strategy, whereby DCDLA attorneys filed more than 100 motions for recusal of cases in Judge Givens’ court, claiming she is “biased.” Collusion it is for these scorned and racist attorneys.

What most people don’t see is that the assault on Judge Givens, and other female Black judges in Dallas, is but a culmination of nearly 170 years of such attacks in our county judicial system. It started way back with Jane Elkins, a Black female slave, who was the first recorded Bill of Sale in Dallas County and the first woman to be legally executed in the State of Texas. She was hung on Friday, May 27, 1853, at the Dallas County courthouse.

Elkins crime? She had the temerity to defend herself against the white rapist who enslaved her. Historians say that on the day Elkins was executed, several hundred people traveled to Dallas to see her die. We are now in the midst of another public spectacle, in which Black women, who act with their own agency for what is right, are dealt with in a different way.

As a historical activist, who relates history to current day events, I’ve found that what reinforces an ivory tower is its base, the so-called establishment. Anyone who comes along to challenge that power structure is treated like a dangerous crack who might topple everyone’s comfortable place within it. DCDLA, through legal maneuvers and a scorched earth media strategy, wants to spackle Judge Givens’ mouth shut. But remember, spackle is toxic to us all.

The history of racism in the justice system in Dallas runs deep. Back in the 1960s, then Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade solicited Assistant D.A. Jon Sparling to prepare a manual to train prosecutors how to pick a jury and exclude people. The memo stated, ”you are not looking for any member of a minority group which may subject him to oppression — they almost always empathize with the accused.” As early as the 1980s the infamous “Sparling Memo” was still being circulated, negatively impacting numerous people’s lives.

And in Texas, when duly elected Black officials exert their power, the attempts to smear and delegitimize them mount. They may point to something as superficial as how a judge asserts his or her legal authority, even in their own courtroom, like in the case of Judge Darrell Jordan of Harris County, or even how they wear their hair. I’ve had Judge Givens on my radio show many times, and even before this latest controversy came about, she was already being attacked publicly and privately for her hair and because she was young.

Why does being a vocal elected official, who calls out injustice, make you a pariah in Texas? Just this past July, 17 members of Congress were arrested in front of the Supreme Court during a protest on abortion rights. The late great Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) was arrested no less than 24 times in his lifetime. However, speaking up and doing what is right in Texas, even when it’s not popular or what people are used to, means you are going to have a Texas-sized target on your back. For a state that celebrates its non‑conformist lifestyle, our dark and racist history shows that staying safe means less is more.

Meanwhile, while the DCDLA spends its time trying to take Judge Givens down, she continues to work hard to make a difference in the community. Among the many programs she created are the Word of Mouth series, which gives the public access to the inner workings of the criminal justice system and demystifies the system, and the Empowerment Program, which equips probationers with the necessary support and life skills to successfully complete probation.

Having observed her over the years, Judge Givens simply wants everyone to experience a just and fair justice system as they are entitled to, and if that means making some cracks, she is fine with using a hammer. Though the Republicans and DCDLA have tried long and hard to smear her into oblivion, her star continues to rise in the community. She has gone through the fire, but as a result, Judge Givens has come out glistening like gold.