The chief judge of Maryland District Courts has banned all court employees, bailiffs, commissioners, constables, clerks, staff and judges from wearing face masks with the law enforcement symbol of the “thin blue line.”
Chief Judge John P. Morrissey sent an email ordering staff to cease wearing the masks across the 34 District Court sites statewide. His order Wednesday does not apply to courthouse visitors.
In the email provided by the judiciary, Morrissey wrote that the court had been made aware of “an issue of perceived bias” and that staff had been wearing masks and other items of clothing with the “thin blue line.”
“The Judiciary must maintain itself as an unbiased and independent branch of Maryland state government,” he wrote. “Employees of the District Court wearing any clothing item or apparel which promotes or displays a logo, sticker, pin, patch, slogan, or sign which may be perceived as showing bias or favoritism to a particular group of people could undermine the District Court’s mission of fair, efficient, and effective justice for all and call into question the Judiciary’s obligation to remain impartial and unbiased.”
Morrissey’s order applies only to District Courts, the lower of the state’s two trial courts, and not the Maryland Circuit Courts, which handle felonies, among other duties. A spokeswoman for the judiciary said no similar mandate has been given to staff at the Circuit Courts.
The “thin blue line,” a reference to the blue of police uniforms, is a symbol worn to show support for law enforcement. It’s commonly worn on masks and T-shirts, displayed on flags, and shown on bumper stickers. More recently, the image has become politically charged and used by counterprotesters at rallies for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We certainly understand what the judge is trying to accomplish here,” said Clyde Boatwright, president of the statewide Fraternal Order of Police. “But the concern we would have is, is this type of restriction for all advocacy groups?”
The judge took action at the request of Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe. In a letter Tuesday, DeWolfe urged judges to ban the symbols in courthouses. The judiciary provided his letter Thursday.
DeWolfe wrote that public defenders have observed “thin blue line” masks, pins and other clothing at courthouses in 15 jurisdictions.
“It has been adopted by the ‘Blue Lives Matter’ movement, which launched in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and has been associated at times with white supremacist groups” DeWolfe wrote. “The wearing of this mask politicizes a space that is, at its core, supposed to be the very essence of fairness and impartiality.
“To allow these masks to be worn by courtroom staff during the hearings and trials of our clients, a large swath of them Black, denies to them the appearance that their hearing is being conducted fairly and without bias.”
In an email to The Baltimore Sun Thursday, DeWolfe applauded Morrissey and wrote that he hopes the Circuit Courts follows suit.
Dana Vickers Shelley, the executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, called the judge’s ban an “important step.”
“Symbols of racial violence and oppression have absolutely no place in government spaces,” she wrote in an email “The State of Maryland and its judicial, legislative, and executive leaders must ensure that laws, policies, and actions value and uplift the humanity of all Marylanders.”
Debate swirled in 2019 when Democratic Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich banned a police station in Germantown from displaying a “thin blue line” flag, the gift from a boy for National First Responders Day. In response, Gov. Larry Hogan wrote on Twitter that he was “offended and disgusted.”
The governor posted photos of himself on Twitter standing before “thin blue line” flags.
“We are proud to hang these Thin Blue Line flags in Government House to honor our brave law enforcement officers. A local elected official prohibiting police from displaying a flag given to them by a grateful child is disgraceful,” he wrote.
Morrissey’s order went into effect immediately.
“We do this as professionals who have been called upon to represent the independence and impartiality of the Judiciary and to uphold our duty of presenting a neutral and unbiased image to the public.”
He declined to comment beyond the order.
This story has been updated with comment from the ACLU of Maryland.