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Tatum disciplined by court of the judiciary - Full Text
Oct 14, 2005 12:00 am
September 23, 2005
Though the details remain a secret, disciplinary action has been taken against Wilson County Juvenile Court Judge Barry Tatum in connection with highly controversial court orders he issued requiring Hispanic mothers to learn English in child custody cases.
Documents from the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary – which is charged with overseeing the conduct of the state's judges – show "disciplinary action" was taken but cites state law and the court's own rules in declining to reveal the exact nature of the action.
In an eight-page "explanation" to the court during its investigation, Tatum referred to "the unique language and cultural barriers in these two cases" and said an underlying factor in the controversy was "the atmosphere generated" by The Lebanon Democrat, which first revealed the rulings in January.
In his explanation, Tatum suggested at least one of the two defendants was never in immediate danger of losing her child, saying a warning about custody was simply his description of a "worst case scenario" for the woman.
In a later letter to the court, Tatum said the controversy "cast a shadow on the bench and made me look like an idiot" and expressed concern that the controversy had "compromised judicial integrity."
A message left at the office of Tatum for comment on the documents Thursday went unreturned.
Disciplinary action against Tatum stemmed from a complaint filed with the Court of the Judiciary by Nashville resident Alex Friedman, who turned documents over to the newspaper Thursday after the court rejected his recent request for specifics about the disciplinary action.
In a telephone call to the court, a spokesperson declined comment on the documents, noting they included a letter from the court's presiding judge terming the disciplinary action confidential.
The letter to Friedman from Court of the Judiciary Presiding Judge Steven Stafford states "appropriate disciplinary action has been taken as a result of the investigation" prompted by his complaint.
The letter, however, goes on to state because of Tennessee law and "rules of this court I am not permitted to describe to you the specific type or nature of the disciplinary action taken."
"The important point is for you to know that your complaint was not dismissed, and the court indeed took action based upon your complaint," the judge wrote in the letter to Friedman.
The two cases – one of which included an order from Tatum that a woman "use birth control" – were the only two instances in which he imposed a language condition in a child custody case, the judge stated in his response to the complaint.
Tatum mentioned the newspaper's coverage of the controversy – which ignited international interest in the two cases – several times in his response, saying he agreed to an interview about such court orders because the "state Department of Children's Services and the juvenile court system had been the subject of several articles and at least one editorial in the paper."
Tatum told the court he viewed the newspaper's coverage of controversial DCS cases and related court hearings as a "mild accusation that the secrecy afforded juvenile proceedings was somehow the cause of the larger, more systematic problems associated with DCS."
In his response, the judge addressed the language orders in much the same way he did with a Democrat reporter as the controversy began, saying the ability to speak English would allow mothers to more easily take advantage of various social services, including enabling them to better communicate with their attorneys and counselors. He also noted English was already the primary language of one of the children in question. In his response, Tatum pointed out both of the mothers speak Mixteco rather than Spanish, further complicating cases for the court.
In explaining his decision to the newspaper in January, Tatum said he entered the orders in one case "to emphasize the choices available" to the mother, adding the child would "lose out on all the opportunities available to her" if not taught English.
His comments came to a Democrat reporter who was present in the courtroom when he ordered 18-year-old Victoria Luna to "learn English" and "use birth control" in a child custody case.
However, before the case concluded the judge dropped the birth control stipulation and acknowledged in his response to the court he "was wrong" by issuing that directive.
"Finally, the birth control order was wrong, and I have addressed that with the young mother," Tatum said. "I apologized to her and to all involved."
Tatum later granted Luna permanent custody of her daughter in a low key hearing that was a stark contrast to the second case, in which a Hispanic mother sought to be reunited with her 11-year-old daughter, drawing widespread media attention and igniting a circuit court custody fight that ended before Tatum's lower court orders were addressed by a chancery court judge. In that case, the chancellor granted temporary custody to the child's father.
In his response to the court, Tatum said he "stirred up a hornet's nest with these cases" and referred to the news coverage they received as "media attacks."
"My efforts to explain or rationalize my rulings only made things worse," Tatum wrote. "Frankly, though, I resent being labeled a bigot or racist when my true desires are exactly the opposite. … The vocal opposition I have encountered in these cases has ignored the clear issues of abuse, abandonment and neglect and has seized the issue of free speech. I also resent the media when it implies that something is rotten and corrupt because DCS cases and dependency and neglect cases and many juvenile court proceedings are confidential. I view these media attacks as an assault on the judiciary as a whole."
Tatum, in a later letter to the court dated June 30, referred to the "agenda" of "local media" and said the controversies shook his self-confidence while making him "look like an idiot."
"This episode has cast a shadow on the bench and made me look like an idiot," he said. "My true intentions were not racially motivated but have been painted so by the media. It has made me lose some confidence in my own abilities. I find myself second-guessing my own decisions. Finally, I have had numerous others of Hispanic origin come forward in other cases. I secretly wonder if they have read or heard about the terrible judge who hates Hispanics. If so, my actions have compromised judicial integrity in their minds and surely others."
Tatum expressed regret over granting an interview with the Democrat at the time the court orders were revealed, saying he "broke my cardinal rule" by commenting about the case.
Tatum said he agreed to the interview "with the naive idea that I could partly lift the 'veil of secrecy' our local media paints which suggests that what we do in juvenile court is shady or illegal."
"I commented only on what issues were raised in court," the judge said. "Nonetheless I saw quickly that the media's agenda is different than my own. I should have never granted the reporter an audience. This week our local editor praised himself and his newspaper while speaking to the local Rotary on its quest to lift the shroud over juvenile proceedings. I bit my tongue almost all the way through."
Tatum said he felt "certain" even without his remarks the story would have gained notoriety, though he added his "comments lent some authenticity and made a nice, fat juicy target."
"If I could go back, I would never respond to any reporter," Tatum said near the end of the letter. "I have turned down every request since."
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.