Judge Bill Pryor, Racism, and Runaway Federal Judges

Judge William Pryor is the Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. He is the protege of  former Senator and Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Pryor, a frequent speaker at both the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society, argued in 1997, more than 16 years before Shelby County gutted a part of the Voting Rights Act, that the entire law should be repealed. An Alabama judge/politician with this history, one would think, might be just a tad sensitive on issues of race, but life tenure is a cure-all for most scandals. Pryor is involved in a big one.

The story begins in 2017 when journalist Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker that Crystal Clanton, who worked for the far-right group Turning Point, USA, had sent the following text message to a friend: I hate black people. Like f--- them all … I hate blacks. End of story.” 

Mayer reported that she had obtained screen shots of these messages. Clanton responded that “I have no recollection of these messages and they do not reflect what I believe or who I am and the same was true when I was a teenager.” There was no denial that she made the statements, and there was no apology. Shortly after the story, she resigned from (or was fired by) Turning Point USA, a far, far right student group run by Charlie Kirk.

After Clanton left Turning Point, and in a bizarre twist, she was hired by Ginny Thomas to help her with media spots. Clanton eventually enrolled in the Antonin Scalia Law School (formerly George Mason), and then was hired by an Alabama district court judge and Judge Pryor as a law clerk. Judge Pryor has sent many clerks to Justice Clarence Thomas--more than he has sent to all the other Justices combined. Neither Clanton nor Judge Pryor has publicly commented on the story.

Clanton's text message does not appear to be an isolated incident. The Washington Post reported that one "year after the New Yorker story, the website Mediaite, reporting on Clanton’s hiring by Ginni Thomas,  described a Snapchat message featuring 'a photo of a man who appears to be Arab and a caption written by Clanton that reads, ‘Just thinking about ways to do another 9/11.’”

After this story was reported in numerous news outlets in 2021, the U.S. Judicial Conference's Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability asked the Second Circuit to look into the matter (the 11th Circuit judges had an obvious conflict). In January, 2022, the Chief Judge issued a summary report concluding there was no wrongdoing. But the report was so poorly done and so obviously did not try to get at the truth of the story that the Judicial Conference asked the Second Circuit to look into the matter further. For example, there is no indication that the Chief Judge in her initial report interviewed the Thomases or Jane Mayer, who broke the story and said she had screen shots of the messages.

Last week, the Second Circuit refused to reconsider its decision accepting Judge Pryor's argument that it had no jurisdiction to do so. I do not know if that argument has merit (I doubt it) but the point is that Judge Pryor, rather than welcoming a full investigation, instead argued that there should be no further inquiry. Again, he hired a law clerk who allegedly said, "I hate black people. Like f--- them all … I hate blacks. End of story.” 

So Judge Pryor got away with it. This terrible episode is not about cancel culture or political correctness. A Black attorney or any attorney with a Black client would be justifiably worried about receiving a fair hearing before Judge Pryor, who has quite a mixed history when it comes to matters of race. Black personnel working in the courthouse will likely have to engage with and maybe work with Crystal Clanton. I'm guessing those encounters might be truly unfortunate.

As this scandal comes to a premature close, it is simply a terrible look for the federal judiciary. And for me personally. I clerked on the 11th Circuit not long after it was split away from the 5th Circuit. I met courageous judges with names like Wisdom, Tuttle, and Johnson who bravely fought for desegregation in the 1960's and 1970's at great personal cost. What a sad and tragic turn of affairs that where there once sat brave judges determined to help alleviate racism there now sits a Chief Judge who should have a lot more to answer for than a jurisdictional argument ending this sordid controversy without any real closure on the issues at stake.