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Mexican officials pay judge a visit
Mar 25, 2005 12:00 am
His ruling that a Hispanic mother learn English and "use birth control" or else risk losing custody of her child set off an international furor, but the judge behind the controversy won't discuss the Mexican government's apparent interest in the case.
A source familiar with the January ruling by Wilson County Juvenile Court Judge Barry Tatum – speaking on the condition of anonymity – said two representatives of the Mexican consulate's Atlanta office met with the judge Wednesday to discuss the case.
It is one of two known pending cases before Tatum in which he has ordered Hispanic immigrants to learn English at the risk of losing custody of their children, rulings which have drawn criticism from civil rights groups worldwide.
The Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham is joining local attorney Jerry Gonzalez in contesting a similar ruling handed down against another Hispanic mother by Tatum.
SPLC official Mary Bauer said the case is scheduled to go before Tatum on April 18.
Bauer said while she was unsure if the meeting happened Wednesday, officials with the Mexican consulate in Atlanta have been attempting to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Tatum.
"I don't know that it has happened, but I do know that someone with the Mexican consulate has wanted to arrange such a meeting," Bauer said.
Repeated attempts to contact the Mexican consulate official identified by Bauer late Wednesday were unsuccessful.
However, Tatum three times responded with a terse "no comment" late Wednesday when asked if he met with representatives from the Mexican consulate in Atlanta about his controversial January ruling.
Tatum, contacted at home late Wednesday, repeatedly refused to respond to a reporter's questions, saying only "no comment" when asked if the meeting took place.
When asked if he was denying such a meeting occurred, Tatum again replied "no comment."
The judge also responded with a quick "no comment" when asked if he was willing to discuss any aspect of either case.
In the January case, Tatum told the teenage Hispanic mother he hoped to avoid a "Tower of Babel" situation by having the mother learn English, then from the bench also ordered her to "use birth control."
In an earlier interview, Tatum defended the court orders, saying he was merely trying to ensure the U.S.-born 2-year-old's future by ensuring she was fully assimilated into American society.
"Here we have an American citizen who runs the risk of losing out on all the opportunities if she's not assimilated into the culture," the judge said.
Tatum also acknowledged the orders were unenforceable from a practical standpoint and his directive regarding birth control was possibly a violation of some religious beliefs.
But he said he imposed the orders as a way to "emphasize the choices" available to the woman.
"I have to look out for the best interest of the child and that's what I was trying to do in this case," he said. "Is she going to lose her child because she doesn't use birth control? No, she's not. But again, I felt like there had to be some way to emphasize to her there are some other options."
As for the instruction regarding teaching the child English, however, Tatum said the woman could "potentially" lose custody of the toddler for failing to follow that order.
"I'm not against someone retaining a sense of their culture. I think that's a great thing," the judge said. "But at the same time, I have to do what I can to see that child develop in as normal of a manner as possible. We owe that to our children."
Tatum's public defense of his rulings drew stinging criticism from Gonzalez – who is active in a number of area civil rights cases – with the attorney revealing he is representing a Hispanic mother placed under a similar order by the judge.
"He needs to read the U.S. Constitution and then he needs to read the law," Gonzalez said of Tatum, going on to vow a legal fight "all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary."
Gonzalez said he intends to seek sanctions from a state appeals court putting an end to such court orders.
Gonzalez also suggested Tatum acted improperly by entering orders that could not be enforced.
"His job is not to get up there and scare people," the attorney said. "He's not there to scare people. He's supposed to follow the law, not just issue orders because he feels it's the right thing to do. Court orders are supposed to be based on the law. If we had judges just issuing orders based on what they thought was right instead of the law, we would have about 10,000 different laws all contradicting each other."
The SPLC – which has been monitoring civil rights cases since its formation in the 1970s – recently filed for permission to assist Gonzalez in representing his client, who cannot be identified because of the stringent confidentiality laws governing the state's juvenile court system.
The organization's involvement means "a no holds barred, all-out defense of this woman," Gonzalez said.
"She now has three attorneys representing her as well as the resources of a nationally recognized civil rights group behind her," Gonzalez said. "Not only are they experts in this field, they've also entered an application to pay for all costs. We will do everything humanly possible to protect her rights."
The court-appointed attorney representing the mother in the January hearing, Julie Rowland, has declined to identify her client, citing juvenile court confidentiality laws. Rowland is on the staff of Rochelle, McCulloch and Aulds, one of Lebanon's top law firms and one with which Tatum was affiliated before his election to the bench.
The attorney appointed to protect the interests of the 2-year-old in the January case, David Kennedy, has also refused to discuss the case due to juvenile court confidentiality laws.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.