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Covington city court judge resigns
Hathorn doesn't admit saying anything wrong after employee complaint; doesn't want to divide council
Covington Municipal Court Judge Steven Hathorn - photo by Courtesy of the city of Covington

Judge Hathorn speech

Listen to the full speech Covington Municipal Court Judge Steven Hathorn gave to the city council, explaining and defending comments a court employee said were prejudiced against black defendants.

No complaints in Oxford
Attorney Steven Hathorn is also the municipal court judge for the city of Oxford, and there have been no formal complaints filed against him during his 18 years as judge, according to city officials.

Oxford Mayor Jerry Roseberry said Monday, prior to the Covington City Council, that he has never heard any complaints about Hathorn during Hathorn's time as Oxford's municipal judge and said he was surprised anyone would make such allegations of prejudice.

Roseberry said Hathorn does like to lecture the college students at Oxford College, both when students start school in the fall and if they ever come before his court for minor issues.

"He’s not going to put up with any foolishness in his court now. He runs that court and will not allow anybody to fool with it," Roseberry said.

"I've never seen or heard of any evidence that he discriminated against anyone in court. If you're a young person, who has an opportunity to get their life back together, he may bear down on you a little bit...he does that, but it's for their own good. He's not demeaning."

Oxford City Manager Bob Schwartz confirmed no formal complaints had been filed against Hathorn.

Hathorn is also the judge of the municipal court in Walnut Grove in Walton County.

(Note: Attached to this article is the audio recording of the speech Covington Municipal Court Judge Steven Hathorn gave to the city council, explaining and defending comments a court employee said were prejudiced against black defendants. Also, attached to the article is a PDF copy of a transcript (transcribed by The News) from part of the Jan. 22 municipal court session, which caused a court employee to accuse Judge Steven Hathorn of racial prejudice.)

Covington Municipal Court Judge Steven Hathorn resigned Monday night, saying he wanted to avoid dividing the city and city council, after a court employee accused him of prejudice toward black defendants.

In an impassioned speech in front of the council, Hathorn said he has never purposefully offended or denigrate any person or ethnic group, though he acknowledged he may have been too blunt and brusque, at times.

Hathorn was clear that he did not feel he had done anything wrong and said he resigned because he said it would be difficult to work with the employee and because he did not to want to split the six-person council.

A court employee filed a complaint with the city following the Jan. 22 municipal court session, referring to two specific comments made by Hathorn on Jan. 22 and alleging multiple other occasions where he made "comments to defendants that are totally inappropriate."

Because of Hathorn’s resignation, the council did not take any action and members did not share their thoughts in open session. When asked Tuesday, Mayor Ronnie Johnston said he had given Hathorn his personal opinion that it would be best for Hathorn and the city if the judge stepped down. Hathorn thanked the mayor for his candor during his speech to the council.

Attorney Ben Hendricks has been asked to serve as interim municipal court judge, City Manager Leigh Anne Knight said.. When the council appointed Hathorn as judge in May 2012, it also voted to name Hendricks the backup judge in case of illness or conflict of interest.

Knight said the job has already been posted.

Comments in question and complaint letter

One of the comments in the complaint letter was made to a 19-year-old black woman who had been on probation for a shoplifting charge and was charged again, with trying to send tobacco (which is considered contraband) to a Morgan County inmate. The woman had been on pre-trial diversion, meaning she her shoplifting charge would not show up on her record if she completed the terms of her probation.

"Ma’am, do you understand if I bang this gavel, I’ll give you a criminal record that will follow you the rest of your life?" Hathorn asked, according to the audio recording from court, obtained through an open records request.

"Yes, sir," the woman replied.

"Did you think about that?" Hathorn asked.

"Yes, sir," the woman replied.

"I get so sick of giving young African Americans criminal histories, but it’s because y’all get in trouble. Do you understand? And then we give you pre-trial diversions and you throw it away. And then you got this tag hanging around your neck the rest of your life that says criminal. You understand?" Hathorn asked.

The court employee felt Hathorn’s comments were inappropriate.

"I do understand that Judge Hathorn may be trying to help these young kids. However, I don’t feel that it is his place to judge people based on the color of their skin," the employee wrote. "No representative of the city of Covington should be allowed to talk to people this way.

"I didn’t appreciate that he said, ‘Y’all get in trouble.’ What did he mean by that? Y’all black people? Y’all women? Y’all young people? One would think that he meant young people, but after yesterday, I’m, not sure anymore," the employee wrote.

The letter also refers to a comment, Hathorn made in the next case, again concerning a young black woman who was on pre-trial diversion but had violated her probation.

"Nobody learns. The learning curve around here, what are we missing? What are we not doing here? Do y’all just not understand that you’re giving yourself a criminal record for the rest of your life?" Hathorn asked.

"I understand," the woman stated.

Later, Hathorn said, "This is pitiful. Dean Tate used to say, working with someone that wouldn’t try is like going hunting carrying a dog. I can’t keep carrying y’all’s dog. We give you your chance and y’all throw it away."

In the complaint letter, the employee said a judge should be impartial and that people shouldn’t be lumped into groups based on age, race, sex or national origin.

"Based on conversations with other court personnel, I am not the only one who feels this way," the employee wrote.

Covington Personnel Director Ronnie Cowan said no other formal complaints were filed against Hathorn and he was not aware of any citizen complaints, but when asked, he said the employee who filed the formal complaint had indicated the judge made similarly inappropriate, in the employee’s opinion, comments on multiple occasions.

Hathorn’s response

After Monday’s executive session meeting, the council opened the meeting back to the public and heard testimony from Hathorn, which under law must be open to the public.

Hathorn said the he was distressed and uncomfortable with the higher failure rate of African Americans, particularly African-American males, when it came to successfully completing the pre-trial diversion program and avoiding creating a criminal history for themselves.

Hathorn said some of his comments were not directed at the defendant but toward the probation officer, because Hathorn had already had to deal with multiple similar cases earlier in the day.

He referred to a case of a young African-American man who had failed to complete any of his required probation requirements.

"I told him he was further disadvantaging himself. Because I’m a 57-year-old man who has lived in the South all his life, and I don’t have any problems looking any member of this council in the eye and saying that young black people are still disadvantaged in our society.

"Now that apparently offends people. No offense was necessary. I didn’t mean to offend him, I meant it to get his attention. Y’all that know me... . Y’all that know I’ve been in this town for 31 years, I am a passionate person about what I do. I was trying to get the young man’s attention.

"I was reminded by the mayor today that I had made a statement to him, that when (the young man) was allowing himself to be sentenced to a criminal conviction, he was locking a chain around his leg and would drag the log of his conviction around the rest of his life.

"Now, because of associations of I assume African Americans and slavery, that’s offensive to people. Nothing that I said was intended to offend anybody. And I stand here now and I tell you, that nothing I have ever said, either on the bench or off the bench, was intended to denigrate or offend any ethnic group."

Hathorn said he thought he had a good relationship with the person who made the complaint, but said if they had really had a good relationship the person might have tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Do you know what you’re saying? Do you realize what just came out of your mouth?"

Regarding the first complaint, Hathorn actually went against the recommendation of the probation officer and allowed the woman to potentially complete her pre-trial diversion. He gave her 14 days to pay off the balance of her fine and said he was giving her one last time to get out of her criminal history, according to the court audio.

He referred to that Monday night.

"I was sensitive (to her situation) and I am sensitive, and I think the record will show that I have been sensitive. My court has not been about collecting money for the city of Covington. Never has. It’s about trying to do justice as I see it," Hathorn said, noting he has reduced his fines and tried to use as much pre-trial diversion as possible.

"Now, I don’t like banging that gavel, telling them they’re guilty and giving them a record. If I am guilty of anything it is inarticulately and colloquially using the language that I grew up with," he told the council.

He told each member of the council he was sorry this had happened. He told the mayor he understood his position and appreciated his candor with him.

"I’m concerned about young African Americans, and everything I said was out of concern. And I find it interesting that nobody has accused me of using a racial slur in regard to African Americans, because I haven’t.

"I’m proud of my record and I resign," Hathorn said Monday. "I don’t want to cause any more bickering, any more divisiveness. This has been an opportunity for me to say – it’s not comfortable for me to say – what I wanted to say and have it heard publicly."

Council’s take

Councilmen Keith Dalton and Mike Whatley both spoke to the judge after the meeting and were complimentary of him.

Councilwoman Janet Goodman was the only council member to respond to requests for perspective. She said she felt his comments were inappropriate, but said she didn’t believe he was prejudiced, having known him for many years.

"I hate that he left amid these circumstances and the statements that he made. Because most of the things he said were facts that were well-documented. In other words, he did not lie. The truth does not change, it remains the same," Goodman said. "I think that his passion for tough love overshadowed his judgment."

The municipal court judge makes $28,000 a year, according to a previous story in The News; the position also gets city benefits. Municipal court meets every Wednesday and hears minor traffic infractions, parking citations and city ordinance violations issued within the city limits of Covington.

Transcript of municipal court cases Jan 22