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Poverty Law center joins fight against Tatum ruling
Mar 07, 2005 12:00 am
One of the nation's leading civil rights organizations is poised to join in a legal fight on behalf of a Hispanic woman ordered by Wilson County Juvenile Court Judge Barry Tatum to learn English or else risk losing her children.
Attorney Jerry Gonzalez, who is representing one of two Hispanic women known to have been ordered to learn English by Tatum, confirmed Thursday the Birmingham-based Southern Poverty Law Center has agreed to enter into the case on his client's behalf.
The organization, formed in the 1970s, monitors civil rights cases across the nation and is widely regarded as one of the leading authorities on hate group activities in the United States.
Gonzalez said the SPLC legal team has already forwarded briefs on the case and filed a formal motion seeking permission to join in the legal fight, which is required of all out-of-state attorneys.
The result of the SPLC's decision 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 attorney had earlier vowed to fight Tatum's directive "all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary" and also promised to attempt to seek state court of appeals sanctions putting an end to such orders.
Tatum drew international attention – much of it less than flattering – after a late January Lebanon Democrat article on a custody hearing in which he ordered a teenage Hispanic mother to learn English and "use birth control" or else risk losing custody of her child.
Because juvenile court proceedings are confidential, its records are not open for public inspection but Gonzalez later confirmed he is representing a Hispanic woman who was placed under a similar order by Tatum.
Tatum, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, defended his order in the January case by saying he was merely trying to ensure the 2-year-old's future as an American by ordering the mother to learn English.
Tatum said he feared the child would "lose out on all the opportunities available" as a U.S. citizen if not taught English.
At the same time, he acknowledged the order regarding birth control was practically unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional but said he issued it as a way to "emphasize the choices available to her."
An SPLC spokesperson contacted in Birmingham on Thursday confirmed the organization has entered the legal fray but referred questions regarding specifics to the group's legal director, who was not immediately available for comment.
SPLC's Mark Potok said the widespread media attention generated by The Democrat article brought the case to the attention of the SPLC, which had Lebanon on its radar just last September when a series of racist handbills touting a neo-Nazi organization started appearing around Lebanon.
"Basically we read your story and thought perhaps we should just take a look into this thing," Potok said when contacted by a reporter.
Gonzalez indicated he believes the case illustrates part of a pattern of cultural bias toward Hispanics in juvenile court proceedings, where he noted many cases "can languish for months at a time."
"As a group, immigrants are certainly at a big disadvantage when it comes to court orders regarding custody than a person who has lived and worked in Lebanon their whole life," he said. "An immigrant, as a practical matter, is only going to be there as long as there's a job there. Immigrants go where the jobs are, so they're not tied into the community in ways that others who appear in juvenile court are."
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at email@example.com.