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Banning ‘thin blue line’ masks in Maryland district courts the right thing to do, circuit courts must follow | COMMENTARY

Courts should ban employees from wearing thin blue line gear. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Courts should ban employees from wearing thin blue line gear. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley) (Timothy D. Easley)

If you’re an employee of Maryland District Courts, you can no longer wear a face mask with the “thin blue line” symbol on it: a black and white U.S. flag with a blue line in the middle to represent law enforcement. In an email to staff Wednesday, Chief Judge John P. Morrissey banned all court employees — including bailiffs, commissioners, constables, clerks, judges and others — from wearing such gear. It was the right thing to do.

The emblem itself is problematic wherever — and by whomever — it’s worn, given its association with white supremacist groups and others offended by the Black Lives Matter movement and protests over police killings of Black people. But its appearance in court on employees charged with ensuring the fairness of our justice system is appalling.

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Employees who don the mask risk giving the impression that the courts would favor police in cases involving charges against law enforcement, or that they might even take a hard stance against any defendant and give police the benefit of the doubt in all cases. Whether that’s in fact the case or not matters little; even the perception of bias hurts the credibility of the court. And, as we have learned from Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd and the actions of Baltimore’s own Gun Trace Task Force, police sometimes do brutalize suspects, and they can lie, cheat and steal. Even if the mask is worn to simply show support for police, it sends the wrong message, particularly to African American defendants in an era when evidence has increasingly uncovered bias in the criminal justice system.

These are the same reasons why this board in 2019 supported a decision by Democratic Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich to ban a police station in Germantown from displaying a “thin blue line” flag that was a gift from a boy for National First Responders Day. Montgomery County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 issued a statement at the time angrily condemning the decision as an “act of outright disrespect.” But how can police serve the community if they openly embrace such a divisive symbol? Community police relations have already been found irrevocably broken in many communities. Why make that worse? Police need to build bridges, not break them down.

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The same goes for the court system. Kudos to Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe, who wrote a letter urging judges to ban the symbols in courthouses after seeing thin blue line masks, pins and other clothing at courthouses in 15 jurisdictions. We agree with his sentiment that this “politicizes” the judicial process and denies defendants, particularly people who are Black, “the appearance that their hearing is being conducted fairly and without bias.” His attorneys have likely felt the discomfort of seeing these symbols and wondering if that would hurt their ability to defend their clients, whose resources are already limited and who likely feel as if the system is stacked against them. From the court’s standpoint: Why give a reason for cases to be overturned? That only slows down the process and hurts the credibility of the system.

Judge Morrissey indicated in his order that any clothing item that promotes bias should be banned: “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.”

Unfortunately, Judge Morrissey’s order, which doesn’t apply to visitors, only covers 34 district court sites statewide. It doesn’t cover the Maryland Circuit Courts, where jury trials are held, and more serious civil and criminal cases handled. As of Friday, the circuit courts had no mandate. They need to follow the lead of the district courts and adopt the same measure.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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