When Shelby County commissioners met Wednesday to question the county’s top three elected officials about their letter asking the federal government to end its oversight of Juvenile Court, two of the letter’s signatories were conspicuously absent: Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael and Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham.
Left to face tough questions and heated criticism was Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who has deferred to Michael any questions about Juvenile Court’s most persistent violation: Treating black children more harshly than white children.
Michael has refused repeated requests from MLK50 to explain why the U.S. Department of Justice should end its five yearlong oversight of the court, especially since federal monitor reports note that the pattern of discrimination is no better, and in some cases, is even worse since the oversight began.
Instead of appearing before the county commission himself, Michael sent a subordinate, as did Oldham, whose representative said the sheriff was on vacation.
Michael’s refusal to answer not only the county commission’s questions but also to be responsive to his constituents begs the question: Who can persuade him to explain his decision?
One possibility: The men and women who financed Michael’s 2014 campaign.
And Judge Michael’s donors are…
Those donors include an Episcopal priest, businessmen and women, the county’s medical examiner, the head of Porter-Leath, several lawyers and more than a dozen employees of Juvenile Court, which has long been criticized for running a patronage system.
Michael’s campaign financial disclosure forms show that four executives from Boyle Investment Company contributed, including co-chairman Bayard Boyle (firstname.lastname@example.org), Jr. and president Paul Boyle (email@example.com), who both gave $1,000. Paul Boyle is on the Shelby County Law Enforcement Board, sits on the board of Baptist Memorial Hospital and is a member of the Chairman’s Circle of the Chamber of Commerce.
Also giving at the $1,000 or above level were William Orgel, the president and CEO of Tower Ventures (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Claudia Haltom (email@example.com), a former Juvenile Court magistrate who founded A Step Ahead Foundation in 2011, contributed $1,000.
Another $1,000 donor is Rev. Audrey Gonzalez, an ambassador at the Juvenile Court where she founded the Foster Care Board and Wing, which is meant “to care for youth that have been abused, abandoned and neglected,” according to its website. She is affiliated with Calvary Episcopal Church.
Sitting Juvenile Court magistrate Terre Fratesi Greer contributed $1,250.
Other donors at the $1,000 or above level include: David Ferguson; Frances Gonzalez; Mark Halperin of Boyle Investment; Felicia Hogan; Harold Horne, Shelby County Juvenile Court Magistrate; Nathaniel Landau; Herbert Lane; Jerry Maness; Brad and Dina Martin; Henry Morgan; Joseph Little; Sheldon McCall; Edmund Nichols; Former Republican State Senator and Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person; William Rayburn; Davis Schuler; David and Paige Walker; and Jeune Johnson Wood.
Only Mayor Luttrell answered the request from Commissioner Mark Billingsley, chair of the law enforcement committee, to appear before the committee Wednesday.
Michael sent a representative from his office, Pamela Skelton, to give his regrets. Skelton, who started by thanking Mayor Luttrell and the other representatives at the table for being “Southern gentlemen” said Michael could not be present because he was trying a “double homicide” case.
“I don’t want anyone to think Judge Michael isn’t appearing and were trying to back off and have the mayor carry the water on this,” she said.” I apologize if that’s the appearance. That’s certainly not the intent.”
However, a source from inside the legal system says the hearing, which was actually a murder case with two defendants and not a double homicide, did not begin until 1:30 p.m.
Discussion of the DOJ oversight letter was set to begin between 10:55–11:15 a.m. and concluded before 1:30 p.m.
Luttrell confirmed Wednesday that the letter was a result of a May breakfast with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland also attended.
Despite Luttrell’s acknowledgment that “there is still work to be done” at the Juvenile Court, he maintained his position that DOJ oversight end.
During the meeting, both Commissioner Billingsley and Just City Executive Director Josh Spickler thanked Luttrell for being the only signatory to appear. Commissioner Melvin Burgess called Michael’s failure to attend “disrespectful.”
Luttrell has continually deferred to Michael on matters of disproportionate minority contact in the Juvenile Court, which has been the area with the least improvement since the DOJ’s initial investigation and subsequent memorandum of agreement signed in 2012.
However, Michael has declined to talk to MLK50 or make himself available to the Shelby County commissioners to defend his support of the letter, which Skelton reiterated as his representative.
“Judge Michael signed the letter and we are in agreement with everything Luttrell said,” she confirmed.
Michael’s 2014 campaign financial disclosure statements show support from several past and present Juvenile Court magistrates, attorneys, and politicians.
If Michael is unwilling to defend his position, it raises the question of whether his donors also support his move to end DOJ oversight over a juvenile justice system which, according to the 2012 DOJ report, detains black children at twice the rate as white children and also transfers black juveniles into the adult system twice as often as whites.
This story will be updated with the names, job titles and contact information as that information becomes available.
Memphis writer J. Dylan Sandifer contributed reporting for this story.
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.