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Controversy over defense lawyer’s Black Lives Matter pin delays hearing

A Las Vegas judge and a deputy public defender clashed Tuesday over the attorney’s right to argue for her client while wearing a “Black Lives Matter” button.

At issue is whether the button is a political symbol that should be kept out of court — or protected free speech.

In a courtroom packed with attorneys, Erika Ballou told District Judge Douglas Herndon she would not remove the button and wanted another judge to hear the case.

“I took an oath to support the Constitution, all of the Constitution,” Ballou said. “My oath is to protect everyone’s free speech, even if I disagree with it. I am not comfortable giving my case to someone else to handle. And I’m also not comfortable abridging my free speech.”

Herndon said he would not recuse himself from Ballou’s cases and delayed sentencing of Ballou’s client, a 61-year-old man, on a battery conviction.

“We’re not here on a petition about a movement or a protest or anything like that,” Herndon said. “We’re here to dispense justice on a criminal calendar of cases. And that’s why I think it’s inappropriate.”

Herndon referenced U.S. Supreme Court decisions that allow judges to prohibit political symbols in the courtroom.

Ballou said she did not believe the button was a political matter.

“This is an issue about criminal justice,” she said. “I believe a courtroom is the proper place to make issues about criminal justice. This is not political speech.”

Herndon’s decision came less than a week after the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, the union for rank-and-file members of the Metropolitan Police Department, sent a letter to Chief District Judge David Barker expressing concern about several public defenders who have been wearing Black Lives Matter lapel pins in court.

“This has nothing to do with the letter from Metro,” Herndon said Tuesday, adding that earlier in the day he asked people supporting victims in an unrelated case to cover up T-shirts. “I’m asking the same things of them that I ask of anybody else. Please leave any kind of political or opinion protest statements outside the courtroom.”

The police union’s new executive director, Steve Grammas, authored the letter, which objected to “attorneys and other citizens who display ‘Black Lives Matter’ propaganda in court.”

“We have received complaints from our member officers who believe that such displays have no place in courtrooms in which justice is to be dispensed,” the letter read. “We are certain that the courts would not allow similar public displays from citizens who believe that killers should be sentenced to death or that sexual predators should be castrated.”

Earlier Tuesday, Ballou removed her button, handed it to another defense lawyer and left the courtroom, but other defense attorneys showed up in the courtroom wearing Black Lives Matter pins.

According to Grammas’ letter, the police union supports the First Amendment right to free speech but thinks courtrooms are an inappropriate venue.

“While we appreciate that judges control their courtrooms, we urge you to consider directing such protesters to reserve their displays for public forums,” the letter concluded.

Barker could not be reached for comment.

The Black Lives Matter movement protests controversial shootings of black people by police and advocates for police reforms.

Metro has taken several steps in recent years to improve its relationship with minorities. The department meets with a multicultural advisory council every month and uses programs like “adopt a cop” to introduce police recruits to minority communities.

The department has pointed to such programs as a reason the Las Vegas Valley has not had the large-scale protests against police shootings that many large cities have seen.

A Metro spokesman refused to comment Tuesday on the position of its officers union.

Deputy Public Defender Sarah Hawkins said she tries to remember her Black Lives Matter pin every day, and although she has been treated more coldly by court marshals lately, no one has said anything to her about it.

And she does not consider wearing the pin a political act.

“Human life is not political,” she told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week. “Frankly, I think it’s appropriate to remind people.”

She said she can look over at suspects waiting for arraignment on any given day and see that racial disparities exist within the criminal justice system. She said black people are disproportionately represented in criminal proceedings.

Grammas said the union had to write the letter after Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn refused to address the issue. The union only takes issue with political statements in court, Grammas said.

“We don’t want to step on anyone’s political beliefs,” he said.

Kohn called the letter “very troubling.”

Like Ballou and Hawkins, he did not view the pin as a political statement.

“I guess I wouldn’t categorize it,” he said. “I remember last year passing a very large billboard on my way home every night that the police union put up saying blue lives matter. And I agree with that. I don’t wear either button, but I certainly do believe police officers do a great job. And I don’t want any police officer hurt, and I don’t want unarmed black people shot. … I don’t want anyone to die needlessly.”

Kohn said no one from his office wore the pin in front of a jury.

“I don’t think one should wear any insignia in front of a jury because it is nonverbal communication,” he said.

Ltr to Chief Judge David Barker

Contact Wesley Juhl at wjuhl@reviewjournal.com and 702-383-0391. Follow @WesJuhl on Twitter. Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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