Odell Horton lay flat on his back in a hospital bed when his successor on the Memphis federal bench, Bernice Donald, paid him a visit.
The trailblazing Black judge had summoned Donald to his room to ask her to do two things: First, she should move into his old office. Second, could she please make sure his portrait in his old courtroom remained well lit?
“His portrait had been hung maybe a year or so before and I always checked to make sure that light was on,” said Donald, now a justice on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, but soon retiring.
“It was interesting. The way the portrait was hung, when I would sit on the bench, it always appeared that his eyes were looking over me, just as he had watched over me during each of my [swearing-in] ceremonies. And even after he was gone, it was still watching over me. He’s really shaped much of my career.”
As the first Black federal judge in Tennessee since Reconstruction, Horton helped shape the careers of many other Black attorneys and judges like Donald, who calls her now-late mentor “a giant of a judge.”
Horton’s influence will be recognized in a ceremony Monday, July 25, at 10 a.m. when Memphis’ federal building is formally renamed in his honor. President Joe Biden signed a bill in December that removes the name of late congressman and one-time Ku Klux Klan member Clifford Davis from the Davis-Horton building and renames the iconic, 11-story courthouse and office tower solely for Horton, who died in 2006 at age 77.
The bill, approved by the House and Senate, followed an investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting exploring Davis’ long-forgotten Klan ties.
“Judge Horton promoted diversity,’’ said Doris Randle-Holt, Memphis’ first Black federal public defender, who got her start in the legal profession as a law clerk for Horton in the 1980s.
He promoted diversity in a time when equity and inclusion came slowly.
There have been 238 Black federal judges since 1789, according to data from the Federal Judicial Center. The overwhelming number of those judges, approximately 138, have served after 1980, when Horton was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the bench of the U.S. District Court for Western Tennessee.
Yet, even now, challenges loom.
Biden’s nomination of Black lawyer Andre Mathis of Memphis to replace the retiring Donald on the Sixth Circuit bench met fierce resistance in January from Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who blasted Mathis’ “lack of experience” and decade-old unpaid speeding tickets that the senator ridiculed as a “rap sheet.” Blackburn attempted to promote an alternative candidate, but her effort stalled.
“The makeup of the bench is so much tied to politics and the different views of the officials elected,’’ said U.S. District Court Judge John Fowlkes, another Black Memphis jurist who knew and admired Horton and who fears the consequences if diversity is derailed.
“When President Trump was in office, all the priorities changed. Not to say that his appointees were bad, but I’ll just say that from the numbers of when President Trump was in office, diversity suffered. That’s one of the things that you always have to take into account. And right now, our nation is pretty much split down the middle.
“It is, in my view, that it’s unfortunate that we could not continue with our [increase] in diversity,” Fowlkes said.
President Donald Trump appointed 226 federal judges during his four years in office, 16% of whom are non-white, according to data from the Pew Research Center. During President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, he appointed 320 federal judges, with 36% of them being non-white.
For Randle-Holt, Horton’s example of wise, compassionate justice is desperately needed in a criminal justice system where poor, Black defendants are greatly over-represented in comparison to their overall population.
“We need to start thinking about the mindset of rehabilitation, not warehousing,” Randle-Holt said. “Now there are certain offenses that you can’t do that, but there are so many people in prison (for) some petty stuff. We have to reform this criminal justice system. Right now, it’s more of a penal system than anything.
“The system seems to be set up to destroy certain families, the poor ones. It doesn’t matter what color they are.”
Rocky path to judgeship
Horton’s empathy for the downtrodden and his decision to pursue a law career stemmed from his own experiences, including an incident as a child in Bolivar, Tennessee, where the local sheriff raided his family’s home, without a warrant, looking for liquor.
“Back then, Black people didn’t have much rights and police brutality was almost a way of life,” Horton said in a 2001 interview with the Tennessee Bar Foundation. “That left a tremendous impression on me.”
Horton was born May 13, 1929, in Whiteville, Tennessee, but grew up with four siblings in nearby Bolivar, a rural, West Tennessee town about 70 miles east of Memphis.
“We were probably among the poorest of the poor in Bolivar. My father died early when he suffered a heart attack and left my mother a single parent,” Horton said. “My mother took in washings and laundry for people in the community. We picked cotton, chopped cotton, stacked lumber. We did all sorts of labor work.
“That’s how we made a living and grew up.”
Another key interaction that shaped Horton’s views came when he and a friend worked a job placing sod along the Mississippi River in Memphis. Before leaving for home in Bolivar, the two young friends saw a group of white Memphis police officers harassing Black citizens in the bus station.
“While we were sitting in the Trailways bus station, some police would go through the station checking tickets and if the person was asleep, they would kick them on the front of the leg,” Horton said. “This particular man indicated to this officer, ‘Please don’t kick on my leg this way,’ and just out-of-the-blue, the man hit him with a blackjack just above his eye and knocked him down on the floor. They kicked and stomped him and took him by the belt and drug him out. That was an experience that was like being branded upon your brain. You never forget that.”
Horton left Bolivar in 1946 to serve in the Marine Corps before enrolling in Morehouse College in Atlanta. He later graduated from Howard University School of Law and entered private practice. It was rough at first. Horton rented a room on Beale Street for $20 a month and performed any work he could find, he said in the 2001 interview. He eventually landed in the U.S. Attorney’s Office before becoming a federal bankruptcy judge from 1976 to 1980, when President Carter appointed him to the District Court bench.
His best-known case as a judge came in 1990 with the fraud trial of Congressman Harold Ford Sr., who was accused of taking more than $1 million in fraudulent loans. The raucous case included unproved juror misconduct charges and ended in a mistrial. Ford was later acquitted in a retrial.
The mercurial Ford was highly critical of Horton, but it never flustered the judge. In Horton’s 2006 obituary in The Commercial Appeal, former U.S. District Judge Harry Wellford was quoted as saying Horton never complained once during the notorious trial.
“He … was determined he was going to do his best for justice no matter what,” Wellford said then.
Horton assumed senior status in 1995. He died in 2006 of respiratory failure.
Judge Fowlkes, a former prosecutor, said Horton’s guidance still influences the way he runs his own courtroom today.
“He was somewhat of a mentor to me. He was on the bench when I first came to the United States Attorney’s Office in 1989,” Fowlkes said. “I became highly respectful of how he ran his courtroom. He let lawyers try their cases, within certain bounds of course. I talked with Judge Horton probably more than the other judges and we developed what I thought of as a friendship. I took on a lot of Judge Horton in how I run a courtroom now.”
In the courtroom, Horton “was one of the kindest, nicest gentlemen that you could meet,’’ said Randle-Holt, who served as Horton’s law clerk for more than a year before joining the federal public defender’s office in 1989. She became the office’s First Assistant in 2006 and was appointed to run it in 2013.
“He was the type of judge that every lawyer wanted to go before when you were starting out,” she said. “After leaving (that job), I knew I was ready to practice law.”
Randle-Holt said Horton’s guidance and influence not only helped fuel her career, but also brought a growth in Memphis’ jurisprudence. Diversity on the bench has enabled a better understanding of defendants, something that Judge Horton championed during his time on the bench, she said.
“I remember Judge Horton telling the (white) public defender at the time, ‘You cannot have the only non-diverse office in this federal building. I cannot recommend reappointment for someone who does not see the need for diversity,’ ” Holt said. “He said, ‘I do see the need,’ and then he diversified his office. There’s been a difference (since Horton’s tenure). When you put different people on the bench, you bring their understanding of culture.”
Randle-Holt said that if someone has never been hungry — if he or she doesn’t understand that some people must steal to feed their family — then that person can’t comprehend fashioning a sentence to give some leniency.
Considering Horton’s legacy, Judge Donald said she would like to see a softening in the harshness of mandatory sentences. As an example, she discussed a Memphis case from years back involving a man with prior offenses who had stopped taking his prescribed medication. The man realized he was in a crisis and called police to take him to the hospital.
He was found with a bag containing a single .45 caliber bullet. Due to his prior convictions, he was indicted and sentenced to a mandatory 15-year minimum sentence. He was dead within two years of being sentenced.
“This situation of a person who was convicted of, in my mind because there was no weapon, a non-violent crime, ended up doing a life sentence because he was dead within three years of this event,” Donald said. “I know Congress didn’t have a single bullet in mind when they passed this law, but I think there needs to be real care for when we are applying laws.”
Randle-Holt said it’s taken many years since Horton’s time on the bench for diversity to finally blossom in the federal criminal system in Memphis.
“For so many years, we only had that one [judge],” Randle-Holt said. “You would think there would be more diversity at least in Memphis where you have a county with at least 70-something percent African Americans. And you walk into federal court to see one African American federal judge. But we have made progress some. If you go to Jackson, Tennessee, to our Eastern Division, there is no diversity there. The bankruptcy court, all the judges on the bench, the senior judges, the magistrate judge — they’re all of one race. And I can guarantee you that just like in Memphis, over 85 to 90% of people coming through the system are opposite of the people on the bench.”
Most of the state and federal judges in Jackson, about 85 miles northeast of Memphis, are white. Nathan Pride, the first Black judge in the state’s Jackson-based 26th Judicial District, was elected in 2012. He is no longer on the bench.
Judge Fowlkes agrees with Randle-Holt: the number of Black defendants has dramatically increased in recent years, he said.
“In some ways it hasn’t changed. In some ways it’s gotten worse,’’ he said. “Those who come to court, especially in the criminal side, the number of African Americans that have been charged has increased in my experience since I began in federal court in 1989 and (state) criminal court in 1979.”
Fowlkes said he’s not sure why there has been an increase in the number of Black defendants, but he pointed to a shift in priorities at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The former focus on white-collar crime and corruption has given way in recent years to prosecution of violence and gun crimes, he said.
“I don’t know why that is, but the number of African Americans coming to criminal court has increased. But on the other hand, the number of African American and women lawyers, has [also] continued to increase. To me, that is very positive … but the U.S. Attorney’s office has lost [several of] their African American lawyers in the last year or so but hopefully they’ll be able to correct that. So, in some ways diversity is better but in other ways, it has continued a negative path.”
Editor’s Note: Ben Wheeler, investigative reporter on the staff of The Daily Memphian, produced this story while working for The Institute for Public Service Reporting.