A judge resigned Wednesday and the city of Pearl voted to close its youth court after city leaders learned the judge had kept a mother from seeing her child for over a year, due to unpaid court fees.
Last week, attorneys for the mother contacted Pearl city officials and informed them of the judge’s order—and allegations that he had issued similar orders, according to a news release from the MacArthur Center for Justice at the University of Mississippi School of Law. The city called an emergency meeting for Wednesday night, where Judge John Shirley, who had been the sole youth court judge in Pearl, resigned. The board of aldermen also voted to close the youth court.
“For a judge to prohibit an impoverished mother from having any contact with her baby until monetary payments are made is shocking and repugnant,” said Cliff Johnson of the MacArthur Justice Center. “Such orders are tantamount to judicial kidnapping.”
Shirley emailed a response to Mississippi Today later on Thursday, saying the MacArthur press release “contained lies.”
“Every day as a judge, I try to remember that people lied about and ultimately crucified Jesus Christ, who was perfect, and since I am an imperfect human being, I can expect some people to do the same to me,” Shirley said in his press release.
“While I am prohibited from discussing a youth court matter, I have always sought to protect children from those who abuse and neglect children, and I have at the same time protected the rights of the accused.”
This particular case began in August 2016. The mother, who is unnamed due to the Mississippi youth court confidentiality laws, was riding in a car with her four-month-old child and a friend when an officer stopped the car for a traffic violation. During the stop, the officer discovered that both adults had outstanding warrants for what the MacArthur press release called “routine misdemeanor offenses.”
After the women were arrested, the officer listed the child as “abandoned” because the mother had been detained. The baby’s grandmother arrived to take the child soon after, but the officer still requested the mother and child appear in Pearl Youth Court.
In court later that day, Shirley awarded custody to the child’s grandmother and barred the mother from contacting her child until she was able to pay her court fees in full. Although law allows for youth court judges to appoint attorneys for parents in court proceedings, Shirley did not appoint one in this case.
Despite the fact that the court fees remain unpaid 14 months later, Shirley reversed his decision late Wednesday morning, granting the mother custody of her child, who is now 18 months old.
It is unclear whether Shirley had received notice of the emergency meeting at the time he reversed his order. Shirley did not return multiple phone calls, but in his press release, he stood by his decision and said politics had forced his resignation. He also accused Rankin County Youth Court Judge Thomas Broome, who will oversee the Pearl Youth Court cases, of making a power grab with Jake Windham, the mayor of Pearl.
“I resigned because I am tired of the politics of Mayor Jake Windham and (Broome) and would always wonder when the next back-stabbing would occur,” Shirley said.
Windham did not return a call for comment. Despite his resignation from Pearl Youth Court, Shirley will remain a judge in Rankin County Justice Court.
The issue of court fees, and the burden they put on poor people has hit a nerve lately, both in Mississippi and nationally. Last year, the city of Jackson settled a class action lawsuit challenging the city’s longstanding practice of sending people to jail for unpaid fines. In Texas, a woman is challenging Harris County before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that its system of jailing people who can’t pay bail is unconstitutional.
“All of these abuses are imposed by judges who are either openly hostile to poor people or completely insensitive to the unconstitutional disparity between how the Mississippi legal system deals with those who have money and those who don’t. Judges of good conscience and Mississippians who believe in equal justice for all must demand more from our judiciary,” Johnson said.
The amount of outstanding fees has not been released, also due to Mississippi’s youth court confidentiality rules, which effectively seal all cases before the court.
“So it’s very difficult to know what goes on in those courts,” Johnson said. “One of the things that this case highlights is how a youth court judge can wreak havoc and do so quietly.”
Pearl had been the only city in Mississippi with its own youth court. All other youth courts operate at the county level. Matters before the Pearl Youth Court will now go before the Rankin County Youth Court.