Defending the Judiciary: Judge Carlton Reeves ’89 Receives Jefferson Medal, Shares His Insights From the Bench

Jacob Jones ’21
Events Editor

Judge Carlton Reeves ’89 speaks to a full auditorium about maintaining the integrity of the judiciary. Photo credit Kolleen Gladden ’21.

Judge Carlton Reeves ’89 speaks to a full auditorium about maintaining the integrity of the judiciary. Photo credit Kolleen Gladden ’21.

This past Thursday, April 11, Judge Carlton Reeves ’89 received the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law award. Even Dean Goluboff, as fast as she talks, took several minutes to introduce Judge Reeves because of his impressive list of accomplishments and contributions to both the nation and his community in Mississippi, where he is currently a U.S. District Court Judge.


Judge Reeves began by noting that Professor Armacost could take the seat in the front she had previously walked up to but then awkwardly decided not to sit in.[1] He then began his prepared remarks, entitled: “Defending the Judiciary: A Call for Justice, Truth, and Diversity on the Bench.” Judge Reeves launched into his speech by acknowledging the awkwardness of a black man being given an award bearing the name of a slaveholder, namely Thomas Jefferson. And not only did Jefferson own slaves, but he also hated the judiciary. One theme of Judge Reeves’s speech seemed to be that the mix of racism and hatred of the judiciary was not unique to Jefferson, but was something that had happened historically and continues today.


Another theme in Judge Reeves’s speech was how diversity promotes justice. He explained how justice requires that the truth be found. To get the truth, different perspectives are required. A lack of diverse experiences, he explained, was what led to the decision in Dred Scott. Focusing on his home state of Mississippi, Judge Reeves described the beginnings of inclusion in the Reconstruction Era, followed by backlash by white supremacists who used the courts to promote white supremacy and turn a blind eye to hate crimes. When the courts tried to incorporate black experiences again in Brown v. Board of Education, there was a second backlash against the judiciary. Each time more diverse perspectives were included, especially black perspectives, justice was promoted but there was a strong backlash.


Judge Reeves’s speech would have been in calm waters had he stuck to historical lessons, but I think Judge Reeves felt compelled to call out injustices of the current day, so he applied historical lessons to current day facts. For the courts to be a defender of justice, we must realize that attacks on the judiciary cannot be disentangled from the attacker’s views on race, and “we must defend against its poison when spewed today, by men of our time.” While he did not mention President Trump by name, he didn’t have to. Quoting the attacks on the judiciary by Trump was enough for a group of law students and scholars to recognize who he was talking about. Giving his perspective as a black judge who grew up in the newly desegregated South, he expressed how he heard the old calls of “a race-baiting politician, empowered by the falsehood of white supremacy, questioning the judicial temperament of a man solely because of the color of his skin.” There were no words minced.


Judge Reeves’s speech was a reminder that we cannot be complacent with the facts and circumstances of our times. We have just as much of a duty to fight injustice today as there was a duty to fight injustice in 1967.


In addition to the speech given after receiving the award, the Law Weekly had the chance to sit down with Judge Reeves and a group of student leaders for lunch earlier that day. Before the group got food, Judge Reeves had each student introduce themselves, including sharing where they were from and what they hoped to do after graduation. He sought to make the conversation personal to allow for open dialogue between everyone.


Judge Reeves’s answers to questions throughout the lunch conveyed a real sense of hope and optimism for the judiciary system now and in the future. Julian Kritz ’20 asked if he was optimistic about America’s future; Reeves said yes. He articulated the importance of remaining optimistic; if we aren’t, then we can fall into satisfaction, and he stressed that we can’t be satisfied with where we are. Jake Rush ’20 followed up, asking Reeves what the role of hope, optimism, and empathy should have in sentencing decisions. Reeves responded, saying these things “should invade every judge’s decision.” He continued by discussing the importance of finding hope, optimism, and empathy in the state court system given how much those courts handle criminal matters. Reeves also stressed this point: “We need to see humanity in every person who comes before us. Treat them like the person you love the most.”


Manal Cheema ’20 asked Reeves his thoughts on the criticism he receives for writing his opinions “too simply.” Reeves responded, saying he wants even the youngest reader to be able to understand. In Reeves’s view, judges should make sure everyday people can have access to understand and appreciate the opinion. By staying away from legal jargon and unnecessary complexities, he gets closer to that end.


While several more questions about Reeves’s jurisprudence and opinions on serious matters were asked, 3L students Lindsay Fisher ’19 and Teddy Kristek ’19 questioned Reeves on his advice for graduating 3Ls and on what has changed at UVA since his time here as a student. Reeves’s advice to those nearing graduation: “Approach [the next chapter] with vigor.” He told the story of how he ended up going into private practice, which taught him to never say never to opportunity and to not burn bridges with the people you meet along the way. Regarding what has changed most at UVA, Reeves commended UVA’s leadership. Reeves discussed how favorably he viewed the leaders at the university, including Dean Goluboff, Dean Kendrick, President Ryan, and soon-to-be Provost Magill. Reeves described Dean Goluboff as the person able to bring the Law School into this century, and said the university is “being led by the appropriate people at this moment in time.”

[1] Judge Reeves and Professor Armacost both graduated from the law school in 1989, and are both Ritter Scholars. My impression was that they were old friends.