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When Joseph Wood was elected the first black county judge for Washington County last year, news coverage naturally made note of the fact. It's not that race is in any way an indication that he would run the county office one way or another -- his Republican credentials probably said more about that -- but election of a "first" is usually an achievement in our culture worth recognizing. As a people, we Americans still have a lot to learn about how we deal with each other, but whether it's Barack Obama, Wood, Hillary Clinton or any other example of a person breaking through a barrier, people should take note and celebrate.

But Wood has, at least in our experience, never performed the duties of his office as a "black county judge." He's just the county judge, like all those who came before him charged with trying to effectively carry out the responsibilities of leadership and management.

What’s the point?

An allusion to possible racist motivations for a lawsuit against Washington County and its county judge were poorly conceived and indefensible.

That's why it was surprising, and disappointing, that a lawyer representing Washington County in a legal dispute raised the possibility of racial motivations in a former county employee's lawsuit against the judge. George Butler, who served admirably as county attorney for three judges over a 30-year career, sued over Wood's process of hiring department heads at the beginning of his term. Butler claims those hirings were improperly handled under county policy.

In an October filing, Jason Owens, a Little Rock attorney with Rainwater, Holt and Sexton, pointed out Wood's race and politics in a footnote in his motion.

"The plaintiff certainly disagrees with the county judge politically and, possibly, otherwise on a variety of issues. Judge Wood is the first Republican judge in decades and the first African-American judge in an even longer period," Owens wrote.

Butler served Democratic county judges, including Wood's predecessor, so the claim that politics might be a motivation in the litigation can certainly be viewed as plausible, whether any proof exists to support it or not. But what is the basis for the allusion to Wood's race? Was the court being asked to jump to some conclusion that Butler, who is white, has some racial motivation for the lawsuit solely on the basis of his skin color? No evidence was cited otherwise.

The county's defense raised questions among justices of the peace on the Quorum Court and were rebuffed by Butler's attorney, Jim Lingle.

"Judge Wood may be the first Republican judge and the first African-American judge in a while, but he is also the first judge to violate county hiring policies and to ignore the sound public policy reason behind the rules," Lingle wrote to the court. "The law applies across racial and party lines."

The case has not yet gone to trial.

Owens and Mike Rainwater, one of the firm's name partners, wisely apologized in a subsequent court filing.

"George Butler is a fine man, lawyer and long-time public servant and the undersigned counsel has always counted him a friend. Undersigned counsel intended no implications of any kind by mention of the county judge's race and personally apologizes for any confusion," according to the response.

Confusion? What, exactly, was the point of bringing it up?

And if there was no implication intended, why does County Attorney Brian Lester, hired by Wood, defend the tactic as a valid, legal argument in response to questions from Justice of the Peace Eva Madison?

"I'm not sure if you are shocked at the thought that George Butler's motive may have been racially motivated, or at the audacity that anyone would suggest such a thing against a Democrat," Lester wrote to Madison.

Hey, politics is a hardball business, even these days at the local level, sadly enough. But it's a reprehensible thing to assert racial discrimination against a legal or political foe without something to support such a claim. Specifically in the case of George Butler, his three decades of service to the county ought to be worth at least a minimal level of respect from one of his successors.

The attorney's commentary represented a scorched earth legal strategy one might expect to come out of the White House more than the local courthouse. Particularly in a court of law, there should be reasonable hope that legal professionals would focus on whether the disputed action is legal or illegal, not on personal attacks more likely to be found in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

The legal experts who thought it appropriate to advance such hostile theories in court filings did a disservice to Judge Wood and to George Butler, and reflected poorly on themselves.

Commentary on 12/02/2017

Print Headline: A misguided argument

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