Mississippi judge jails attorney for not reciting Pledge of Allegiance in courtroom

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Miss. judge jails attorney for not reciting pledge

TUPELO, Miss. — When a Mississippi judge entered a courtroom and asked everyone to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, an attorney with a reputation for fighting free speech battles stayed silent as everyone else recited the patriotic oath. The lawyer was jailed.

Attorney Danny Lampley spent about five hours behind bars Wednesday before Judge Talmadge Littlejohn set him free so that the lawyer could work on another case. Lampley told The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal he respected the judge but wasn’t going to back down.

“I don’t have to say it because I’m an American,” Lampley told the newspaper.

The Supreme Court ruled nearly 70 years ago that schoolchildren couldn’t be forced to say the pledge, a decision widely interpreted to mean no one could be required to recite the pledge.

On Thursday, the judge again asked those in the courtroom to pledge allegiance to the flag, which stands to the right of the bench.

“I didn’t expect the Pledge of Allegiance, but he asked me to do it so I did it,” said Melissa Adams, 41, who testified in a child custody case that was closed to the public.

Lampley, 49, previously refused to say the pledge in front of Littlejohn in June. He was asked to leave the courtroom, but returned after the pledge.

The attorney told the newspaper Wednesday it was a problem for the judge and himself to work out, yet blogs across the country lit up with fiery comments and support for both sides.

And in the small town of Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis with a population of about 35,000, some were infuriated by Lampley’s silence.

“I thought he was a disgrace to the United States,” Bobby Martin, a 43-year-old self-employed maintenance worker, said of Lampley. “If he can’t say that in front of a judge, he don’t deserve to be here” in this country.

Others voiced support for the attorney.

“I’m speechless. The judge needs a reminder copy of the First Amendment,” said Judith Schaeffer, a Washington attorney who, along with Lampley, successfully sued the Pontotoc school district in northern Mississippi in the 1990s to stop students from praying over the intercom.

Lampley also was victorious representing a Ku Klux Klan leader when a county in the Mississippi Delta tried to prevent a rally.

“Danny’s going to stand up for everybody’s principles,” she said. “Danny loves the Constitution. He’s a staunch defender of constitutional rights.”

Lampley was representing a client in a divorce case when he was found in contempt. The judge’s order, obtained by The Associated Press, said: “Lampley shall purge himself of said criminal contempt by complying with the order of this Court by standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in open court.”

An AP reporter tried to arrange an interview with the judge at the courthouse, but a clerk said he was unavailable and the order spoke for itself. Lampley didn’t return telephone calls, and a voice message said, “In the aftermath of the event on Oct. 6, I am unable to respond to all of the telephone calls and at the same time take care of my business and clients.”

Littlejohn is in his mid-70s and has been a chancery judge for eight years, presiding mainly over divorces and child custody disputes. He was previously a state lawmaker, prosecutor and city judge. He’s also a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist Church of New Albany and is known for running an orderly, professional courtroom.

“He respects God and he respects the flag,” Alcorn County Chancery Clerk Bobby Marolt said.

Adams, who testified in the custody case, described the judge as a good listener who likes to make jokes when appropriate.

“He’s very calm, but he gets on you when he needs to,” Adams said. “He listens to you and he’s constantly writing things down.”

Omar Craig was a defense attorney when Littlejohn was a district attorney years ago. Craig, 83, has practiced law for 56 years in north Mississippi and called Littlejohn one of the leading judges in that part of the state.

“He’s a fine judge. Fair. Honest,” Craig said.

Judges in Mississippi are elected, though they run in nonpartisan races. Littlejohn is running unopposed for re-election in November.

He ran for a congressional seat as a Democrat in 1996, finishing second out of three candidates in the primary. He lost a runoff.

The Pledge of Allegiance has faced challenges since it was published in 1892.

In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that children in public schools could not be forced to salute the flag and say the pledge. In 1954, the words “under God” were added to the pledge, when members of Congress at the time said they wanted to set the United States apart from “godless communists.”

In March, an appellate court upheld references to God on U.S. currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance, rejecting arguments they violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

Mohr reported from Jackson.

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