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Judge Says Sanction Would Harm Free Speech

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (CN) - A black Kentucky judge claims in court that the state's Judicial Conduct Commission's attempts to sanction him violate his right to free speech.

Olu A. Stevens sued the commission and its ten individual members in federal court.

Stevens says the threat of sanctions came after private comments he made about the Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney went public. Those comments questioned the attorney's motivation for pursuing a motion for certification of law in a black defendant's case in which the defendant was acquitted by a racially-diverse jury.

"Judge Stevens' commentary is directed toward the Jefferson [County] Attorney's actions in challenging the dismissal of a racially diverse jury panel in favor of a jury panel in which all but one juror is white and the single black juror was randomly excluded," the complaint filed on Friday states. "Judge Stevens' commentary had nothing to do with the merits of the case and the outcome on appeal is immaterial."

Stevens claims precedent set in the 1968 case of Pickering vs. Board of Education gives him "a First Amendment right and obligation to speak to matters of public concern and his views should not be subject to sanction or result in his dismissal."

Stevens says the involvement of groups such as the NAACP and the National Bar Association proves his comments are a matter of public concern. The National Bar Association filed an amicus brief, which the NAACP joined, in opposition to the Commonwealth's actions in the matter in question.

Stevens' complaint is the latest in an ongoing feud with the Jefferson prosecutor's office. In January 2016, in a different case, the Kentucky Supreme Court removed Stevens from the sentencing of a convicted drug dealer after Stevens dismissed an entire jury pool at the dealer's trial because only three of the 41 prospective jurors were black.

There is currently a petition to disbar Stevens on, claiming the judge is racist towards whites.

At the same time, there is a Facebook group supporting Stevens, claiming he is unfairly being targeted because of his willingness to speak out on racial improprieties within the Kentucky judicial system.

This January, Stevens accepted the MLK Humanitarian Award from Mount Hermon Christian Church for his attempts to achieve jury racial equality.

Stevens is one of only three black trial judges out of 95 in Kentucky, while black people represent 21 percent of Louisville, Ky., and 55 percent of the city's jail population, according to the lawsuit.

"If Judge Stevens is sanctioned for his commentary concerning the Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney's actions and the need to address the problems of institutional racism within the Kentucky criminal justice system, the entire criminal justice system will suffer as other judges will be reluctant to assert their constitutional right to speak to issues of public concern," the complaint states. "The right to disagree with others in issues such as the manner in which we select our juries is a fundamental right that all American citizens enjoy. A judge does not check his first amendment rights at the courthouse door, to be reclaimed at the expiration of his judicial tenure."

Stevens seeks a ruling stating that the defendants violated his First Amendment rights and prohibiting the defendants from imposing sanctions on him.

Stevens is represented by J. Bart McMahon.

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