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Should Lawyers Wear Black Lives Matter Pins in Court?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 26, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Black Lives Matter movement has certainly struck a chord with many lawyers, from Supreme Court justices to public defenders. Over the last Supreme Court term, for example, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has repeatedly called out perceived abuses in the criminal justice system.

But support for BLM isn't always well received by judges. In July, a defense attorney was arrested for contempt of court in Ohio after she refused a judges' order to remove a BLM pin. And just last week, BLM courtroom controversy reignited again, after a deputy public defender in Las Vegas refused to remove her BLM pin in court.

BLM in the Courthouse

The latest BLM pin controversy gained media attention after Las Vegas deputy public defender Erika Ballou balked when Clark County District Court Judge Douglas Herndon requested that she take off her small, black and white Black Lives Matter pin. At the time, Ballou was representing a white domestic battery defendant during a sentencing hearing, according to the Associated Press.

The judge's order came shortly after the Las Vegas policeman's union sent a letter to the chief judge complaining about public defenders wearing BLM "propaganda."

"If you think that Black Lives Matter is anti-police, ask yourself if police are anti-Black Lives," Ballou said in a written statement.

Two days later, she returned to Judge Herndon's court wearing the same pin, and joined by many other attorneys sporting BLM pins and black armbands.

After a freewheeling discussion between Ballou, Judge Herndon, and Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn, Ballou agreed to remove her pin. "You're going to have to trust me moving forward that I'm viewpoint-neutral," the judge said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "And whatever comes up in court, we're going to address it."

Attorneys and Political Speech

Ballou's BLM battle ended more amicably than that of Andrea Burton. While defending a client in Youngstown Municipal Court in Ohio last July, Burton was taken out of court in handcuffs after she refused to remove her BLM pin. Burton filed a civil rights suit afterward, settling that suit on September 1st.

The Supreme Court has never weighed in directly on the limits to attorneys' individual free speech in court, but a 1997 First Circuit case rejected a Maine attorney's lawsuit over an order to remove a political pin.

"An attorney is free, like all Americans, to hold political sentiments," the decision said. "In a courtroom setting, however, lawyers have no absolute right to wear such feelings on their sleeves (or lapels, for that matter)."

Burton's settlement allows her to continue wearing her BLM pin in the courthouse, but not in the courtroom itself. And though Ballou has taken off her BLM button, that may not be the end of it. "It might have to go higher up than this," she told the Associated Press.

What do you think? Should lawyers be allowed to wear BLM pins in court? Let us know below.

Should Lawyers Be Allowed to Wear BLM Pins in Court?
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