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May 11, 2022 Book Review

Contempt of Court (First Anchor Books Edition 2001)

Mark Curriden & Leroy Phillips, Jr., Reviewed by Jordan Howlette

What can a [Black] lawyer know that a [W]hite lawyer does not? Do you think a [Black] lawyer could possibly be smarter or know the law better than a [W]hite lawyer?

—Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Samuel D. McReynolds

In Contempt of Court, Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips, Jr. introduce readers to a landmark 1909 Supreme Court case that completely changed the nation’s criminal justice system. The case of United States v. Shipp, 214 U.S. 386 (1909), centers on the heartbreaking tale of Ed Johnson, an uneducated Black man living in the South who was wrongfully accused in 1906 of raping a young White woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In just 16 days following his politically motivated arrest, Johnson was convicted by an all-White jury in a trial that lacked all sense of fairness and justice.

After being sentenced by the Judge McReynolds to “hang by the neck until dead,” two remarkable Black attorneys fought tirelessly to protect Johnson’s rights to a fair trial by successfully petitioning the Supreme Court to intervene in the matter under the Fourteenth Amendment. Unfortunately, though, Johnson would never get his day before the High Court. His fate was sealed by a group of White vigilantes who felt that the federal government had no business or authority to interfere in the affairs of state court criminal matters. Aided and abetted by the local sheriff and the presiding trial court judge, Johnson’s life came to a heartbreaking end after being brutally lynched by a bloodthirsty mob—a crime that resulted in no arrests.

It is apparent that a dangerous portion of the community seized with the awful thirst blood which only killing can quench, and that considerations of law and order were swept away in the overwhelming flood.... The persons who hung and shot this man were so impatient for his blood that they utterly disregarding the act of Congress as well as the order of [the Supreme Court].

—Chief Justice Melville Fuller, United States v. Shipp, 214 U.S. 386, 414-15 (1909).

Prior to Contempt of Court, Ed Johnson’s story had never fully been told and the significance of his landmark Supreme Court case remained largely unexamined. This is somewhat surprising because United States v. Shipp was also the first and only criminal trial presided over by the Supreme Court, and it was the first time the justices were asked to sit as a jury in determining the fate of an individual. Moreover, Shipp established the Supreme Court’s authority to prosecute individuals—including state officials—for willful violations of its orders, commonly referred to as contempt proceedings.

[Shipp’s] significance has never been fully explained. Shipp was perhaps the first instance in which the Court demonstrated that the Fourteenth Amendment and the equal-protection clause have any substantive meaning to people of the African American race.

—Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

This profoundly important book is a must read for all legal scholars and anyone interested in understanding how the Constitution serves to protect all of us. The book also provides a timely reminder of the unimaginable violence that African Americans endured throughout our history in the pursuit for freedom, equality, and justice.

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Jordan Howlette

Managing Attorney

Jordan Howlette is the managing attorney of JD Howlette Law, a civil litigation firm based in Washington, DC that focuses primarily on representing individuals and businesses involved in a variety of federal civil litigation matters, tax controversies, and general business disputes. Prior to establishing JD Howlette Law, Jordan worked as trial attorney in the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he successfully litigated dozens of civil tax cases and controversies on behalf of the United States in federal courts around the country. Jordan graduated cum laude from New England Law | Boston in 2016 and is licensed to practice law in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Florida, and Massachusetts. He is a veteran of the United States Army, and the immediate past co-chair of the ABA Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section’s Standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.