Paul G. Summers’ nine-page letter regarding the federal oversight of the Shelby County Juvenile Court proves nothing so much as his lack of qualifications to write it in the first place.

If sent by the county powers-that-be, the letter will without question be the most embarrassing report ever submitted to the federal government from this community.

It reads like someone who has spent too much time in the confines of the five rural counties in the Memphis region where he acted as attorney general and display a complete lack of understanding of the urban community that he now professes to serve.

His letter substitutes his startlingly stuck-in-time opinions without evidence, it mixes obsequiousness with pedantic self-reverence, and it evokes the tone of white politicians refusing to concede that inequality or injustice exist because it threatens the good old boy network and its underlying prejudice.

Although we had been told that his decisions as the state’s attorney general sometimes seemed driven more by politics than precedents, we were unprepared for the politically-driven letter that captured much of the thinking that exists in the Jeff Sessions Department of Justice.

It seemed to beg for a subject line that said: “Black children scare me.”

A Preconceived Destination

Regardless of whether you agree with Mr. Summers recommendation to terminate the working arrangement with DOJ or not, his letter to the Justice Department’s Acting Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division John M. Gore, Western District of Tennessee U.S. Attorney D. Michael Dunavant, Mayor Luttrell, Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, and Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham spent much of its time trumpeting his own bragging points when it was not cheerleading the county elected officials with language that could have been ripped from their campaign materials.

It has been obvious with the change of federal administrations and the appointment of a United States Attorney General, whose reactionary policies of “lock ‘em up” – often “lock ‘em up and deport ‘em” –  have undermined equal justice under the law that DOJ’s involvement would be coming to a close.  It falls under the heading of “elections have consequences,” one of the far right’s favorite bromides.

But, despite that, Mr. Summers’s letter poorly represents this community and the county agencies and officials who have been working on this issue.  Rather than lay a case for whatever his final recommendation would be, he rests his recommendation largely on what he sees as his personal laurels and unequalled knowledge of the law.  In the first six paragraphs of the letter alone, he manages to use the pronoun “I” 17 times.

From the beginning when he was being considered for the post, he acknowledged: “I remember specifically advising all in attendance (in a meeting with county officials) that my goal was to settle the case by resolution and mutual termination and ‘my job was to work myself out of a job.”   And that was before he had even read the files.

It’s Not About You

After his introductory comments, he then devotes about a page for Mr. Dunavant, Mayor Luttrell, Judge Michael, and Sheriff Oldham that sound more like eulogies than a legal analysis, including the valuable fact that Mr. Dunavant and his wife, Marianne, received an award in 2014 “for their resilience and work in the area of crime victims’ rights and advocacy.”

Mr. Summers wrote: “After meeting the U.S. Attorney for West Tennessee on several occasions, I learned immediately that the MOA (Memorandum of Understanding) was a top priority for him, especially in his fight against violent crime and for victims in his district…on a personal note, I knew Mike Dunavant when he began practicing law in Ripley.  I was a judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals, so we would periodically see each other at legal functions, both being from West Tennessee…Now, he is my U.S. Attorney. Mike Dunavant is a man of high principles and integrity.”

He sends similar personal Valentines to the other elected officials, evoking memories of that scene from Beaches when Bette Midler said: “But enough about me, let’s talk about you…what do YOU think of me?”

After five pages of this kind of cheerleading and the generous profusion of personal talking points, he finally gets to the point of the letter: his recommendation.  By then, whether you agree or disagree, he has simply squandered his credibility.

We Know What You Mean

It’s when he departs from the self-importance that he gives himself away with the use of terms like “juveniles,” “delinquents,” “black males,” “alpha criminals,” “rebalancing from a focus on ‘therapeutic intervention,” “inner city dwellers,” and “the average citizen in the suburbs would be shocked at the severity of the alleged offenses,” and “young blacks.”

He is at his most outrageous with generalizations: “We do not have a race problem in Shelby County, Washington, D.C., or Chicago, for that matter.  We do not have a DMC, an equal protection, a detention, or a due process problem.  We have a crime problem.”

There is nothing quite like an old white man telling a majority African American city and county that it does not have a race problem.  It is arrogant, sanctimonious, and patronizing, not to mention ignorant.  It is as if he has never read a book on unequal justice, mass incarceration, unfair enforcement, and inequality, and it is a smokescreen to protect business as usual and the status quo so the traditional power structure is protected.

We say it again: whether you agree with his recommendation to terminate the Memorandum of Agreement and U.S. Justice Department involvement here, Mr. Summers’ letter is pedantic and superficially flawed.  His going out of the way to blame “a handful of uninformed community activists” while laying no predicate for such a harsh conclusion is characteristic of the entire document.  It seems a safe bet that he has not spoken with any of these “activists,” which coming from his pen sounds more like an indictment than a description.

Finally, after eight pages of belaboring the point with gratuitous opinions, he wrote: “I will not belabor the point.”  That point, however, when reading the entire letter, bluster and all, praise and self-praise, is that there is little, if anything, in it that refers to the cause of equal justice under the law.

Juvenile Justice Collapse

Speaking of juvenile justice, we intently watched the results of the two juvenile justice committees to craft the “Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018,” which was said to be a priority of Governor Bill Haslam.

It was not to be.  At the 11th hour, juvenile court judges resented any limitations on their power derailed what had been hopeful improvements to a dysfunctional system.  The two broad-based task forces chaired by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Shelby County to evaluate and recommend improvements saw their work county for nothing.  The bill that resulted from two years of work was “significantly watered down,” in the words of Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro.

Senator Norris of Shelby County seemed to second the appraisal, saying they were “well taken.”  From all appearances, he Norris had invested a great of personal equity in pressing for passage of the original bill aimed at addressing the failings of the juvenile justice system.  He described the bill as a “tough slough,” and said that deletions of core changes ended with the legislature taking a “small step” forward.

Over its two years, the committee painted an alarming picture of the state’s juvenile court system, but in the end, as one highly knowledgeable observer of the process said: “The final bill is a pretext and a capitulation – not a compromise – to the juvenile judges, the DAs, and others who are responsible for the sad state of the current system.  It is a long-term, major step backwards.”

So Much Wrong With The State System

Professor Dean Hill Rivkin, distinguished Professor Emeritus at University of Tennessee College of Law, and Brenda McGee, long-time Knoxville children’s rights attorney, wrote in an op-ed that the original bill could “save the State $36 million; improve public safety; and produce a fairer juvenile system, one that is less married by stark geographic and racial disparities.”

“With no public notice, input, or hearings, this salutary process was derailed by the very groups that are responsible for creating the current dysfunctional system: the State juvenile judges and district attorneys,” they wrote.  “Led by the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court judges, an ‘amendment’ was introduced that thoroughly gutted the original bill.

“Under this (final) version, the bill increases opportunities for courts to jail youth in noncriminal status/unruly (truancy, running away, etc.); it expands the offenses for which children and youth can be incarcerated (“widening the net”), it substantially maintains the current system of probation, which ignores research and evidence on proper judicial discretion – contrary to rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court – in a system where unchecked discretion is the norm, thus assuring that ‘justice by geography,’ as Senator Norris has termed it, will persist; it allows children younger than 14 to be transferred to be tried as adults and imprisoned in state penitentiaries, and includes burglary as an offense for which 14-17 year-olds can be tried as adults; and it fails to grapple with the issues of the right to and quality of juvenile counsel and due process that infect the existing system.”

That the amendments that gutted the original bill were called “judges’ clean-up amendments” suggested the judicial malpractice that was exercised, but complicit with the judges and district attorneys general are most of our local legislators, including those representing Memphis, who voted to turn the bill into law.


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