Attorney appeals contempt ruling over Black Lives Matter button
By JOE GORMAN
An attorney cited for contempt of court in municipal court Friday and given five days in jail for wearing a Black Lives Matter button has promised not to wear the button in court while her case is appealed.
Judge Robert Milich issued the citation against Atty. Andrea Burton after he met with her for a few minutes in chambers and she refused to remove what the judge termed a “political button” when they came out and her case was called.
Burton, who is black, was handcuffed by a bailiff and taken to the city jail for transportation to the Mahoning County jail. A Vindicator reporter was the only member of the media present.
As representatives of the Youngstown branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People came to the courthouse, lawyers J. Gerald Ingram and Desirae Dipero worked on securing an appeal for Burton with the 7th District Court of Appeals.
They had asked Judge Milich to stay the sentence but he refused, telling them to take the case to the appeals court. The appeals court agreed to stay the citation and sentence until her appeal can be decided.
Burton’s mother, Dawn Burton, a former bailiff for Judge Milich’s colleague Judge Elizabeth Kobly, said she was stunned by Judge Milich’s actions.
“I’m so flabbergasted,” she said. “In a place where justice is supposed to be doled out, you don’t have freedom of speech? It’s a bit over the line. You don’t have to agree with it. It’s a statement.”
Judge Milich said he issued the contempt citation because the U.S. Supreme Court banned political buttons in the courtroom in the 1997 case Berner v. Delahanty, where an attorney objected to a judge’s ordering him to take off a button for a political campaign.
“I have to follow the law,” Judge Milich said.
George Freeman, head of the Youngstown branch of the NAACP, said he was disappointed that Burton’s freedom-of-speech rights under the First Amendment were violated.
“We thought the judge was overstepping his authority by arresting an attorney for simply letting the world know she is in favor of the Black Lives [Matter] movement,” Freeman said.
The movement launched after the acquittal of a Florida man in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager during a confrontation in February 2012. It picked up steam after other black men were killed by police, including recent incidents in Baton Rouge, La., and in Minnesota.
Judge Milich said he believes the Black Lives Matter movement is a political movement, and because of that, Burton should not have been wearing the button in his courtroom.
In the opinion Judge Milich cited, the high court wrote: “An attorney is free, like all Americans, to hold political sentiments. In a courtroom setting, however, lawyers have no absolute right to wear such feelings on their sleeves [or lapels, for that matter]. [The judge’s] policy of prohibiting all political pins is a reasonable means of ensuring the appearance of fairness and impartiality in the courtroom.”
“I see it as a political issue,” Judge Milich said of the Black Lives Matter movement. He also said he would have taken similar action if someone had refused to remove a button for other political causes or for one of the presidential candidates.
Dawn Burton said she would feel the same way if someone had been cited for wearing a button for another issue. She said her daughter respects all people but feels close to the Black Lives Matter cause.
“She’s not excluding any class of people,” Dawn Burton said. “She’s just saying as a black woman, she’s saying black lives matter as well.”