Civil Liberties

Mississippi Judge Jails Defense Attorney for Refusing to Recite Pledge of Allegiance

Chancellor Talmadge Littlejohn has faced some controversy in the past.

On Wednesday, a scene reminiscent of My Cousin Vinny-- but with core Constitutional values at stake -- played out in a Mississippi courtroom when a veteran judge threw a defense attorney in jail for refusing to recite the pledge of allegiance.

According to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Chancellor Talmadge Littlejohn, a veteran jurist who recently celebrated his 50th year in the state bar, urged 49 year-old defense attorney Danny Lampley to recite the pledge of allegiance, something the lawyer has refused to do on principle. Lampley reportedly “rose and was respectful,” but remained mum. Littlejohn found him in contempt of court and ordered him jailed. Lampley spent 5 hours in prison before being released, and was back in Littlejohn’s court later in the afternoon.

“This morning, [ending up behind bars] was the last thing on my mind," Lampley told the Daily Journal. He added that he and the judge have a "different point of view" about things like loyalty oaths and the pledge of allegiance. "I don't have to say it because I'm an American," he said. But, he added, "I have a lot of respect for him …I'm just not going to back off on this.”

Lampley has worked in the past with the American Civil Liberties Union. The Daily Journalreported that he’d stirred controversy in the past by representing a woman who had objected to student-led prayers over a school intercom, and the Bible history classes being taught at North Pontotoc Attendance Center. Both practices were found to be unconstitutional.

Radley Balko, who covers criminal justice issues for Reason, called Wednesday’s contempt charge, “just astonishingly ignorant, arrogant, and thuggish. Oh, and illegal. It’s also way illegal. Like, not even close.” David Hudson Jr., an expert at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, told the Daily Journalthat forcing Lampley to repeat the pledge was an obvious violation of his right to free-speech. "I've never heard of a judge jailing a lawyer over this," he said.

Talmadge Littlejohn, a former state legislator and District Attorney who first became a municipal judge in 1976, was twice elected to head the First Chancery Court District of Mississippi. A deacon in his Southern Baptist Church and the father of an aspiring Evangelical Christian Rocker, Littlejohn has faced some controversy in the past.

In 1974, when a 21 year-old black man was gunned down by police in Byhalia, Mississippi, local activists with the Marshall County United League criticized law enforcement’s response to the killing. Members of the league distributed pamphlets criticizing Littlejohn, who was then the District Attorney. They called a hearing into the shooting a “farce,” and accused Littlejohn of “acting as defense attorney for the officers rather than as prosecutor,” according to a 1978 ruling by a federal appeals court.

In response, Littlejohn then used a grand jury to launch a legal witch-hunt against the group, investigating its finances and organizational leadership. The Marshall County United League sued, and a federal appeals court concluded that Littlejohn had acted “in bad faith for the purpose of harassing those who, in the exercise of their First Amendment rights, had criticized defendant Littlejohn.” In issuing an injunction preventing Littlejohn from pursuing his investigation further, the justices characterized the case as an “abuse of the grand jury process [that] cannot be tolerated in a free society."

More recently, in a blistering 2006 ruling reversing the judge’s decision in a real estate dispute, the Mississippi Supreme Court called out Littlejohn for deciding for a plaintiff whose “allegations fail[ed] under both case law and common sense.” According to the court, the judge had “completely disregarded the express language” of a property’s covenants. “By doing so,” wrote the justices, “he interpreted the language of the covenants based on his own judgment instead of the plain language” of the documents before him.