By: Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on December 2, 2018
The courageous Limestone County, Alabama Circuit Court judge who set aside a guilty verdict in one of the infamous “Scottsboro Boys” trials will be posthumously honored with a post office bearing his name. It is a fitting tribute to the bravest state court judge to ever serve on the judicial bench in Alabama. No state court judge in Alabama, living or dead, has matched Judge Horton’s courage and dedication to fairness.
Last Thursday, a bill sponsored by Republican Congressman Mo Brooks (AL-5) bill to designate the United States Postal Service Office located at 1110 West Market Street in Athens, Alabama as the “Judge James E. Horton, Jr. Post Office Building” passed the United States House of Representatives by voice vote. The legislation has clear bipartisan momentum, with every other member of Alabama’s House Delegation cosponsoring the bill. The bill must still pass the United States Senate, which is expected to occur soon.
In a November 29, 2019 press release, Congressman Brooks said,
“Judge James Edwin Horton was born in Limestone County, Alabama on January 4, 1878. Despite having no formal education until he was eight or nine, Judge Horton was accepted to Vanderbilt University's medical studies program and, later, to Cumberland University where he earned his bachelor and law degrees. Judge Horton served in the Alabama State Legislature until he took a Limestone County, Alabama chancery court position. Thereafter, he was elected circuit court judge for Alabama’s Eighth Judicial Circuit. After reelection to a second term, Judge Horton was appointed to preside over the retrials of the highly controversial and nationally renowned ‘Scottsboro Boys’ cases.
By way of background, the ‘Scottsboro Boys’ cases involved nine African Americans, ages 13 to 20, accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931 as it traveled through Scottsboro and Jackson County, Alabama. In the first trials, eight of nine defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death, a verdict later reversed by the United States Supreme Court. After a guilty verdict and death sentence during the second set of Scottsboro Boys trials, Judge Horton bravely issued an order setting aside the jury’s guilty verdict against Haywood Patterson and ordered a new trial. In 2013, the Scottsboro Boys were formally pardoned under Alabama law.
For his bravery in the face of extreme racial prejudice and for his willingness to support justice that risked and ended his judicial career, Judge Horton deserves the posthumous honor of having the Athens, Alabama Post Office named for him, and it is appropriate that his legacy be held up as a guide for future generations.”
Judge Horton presided over the first retrial in Haywood Patterson’s case in 1933. In discussing the case during jury selection, Judge Horton said: “So far as the law is concerned, it knows neither native nor alien, Jew nor Gentile, black nor white. This case is no different from any other. We have only to do our duty without fear or favor.”
The jury disregarded Horton’s instruction and found Patterson guilty of rape. Horton set aside the jury’s guilty verdict because he did not believe the evidence supported it.
Horton’s belief was confirmed in a private meeting with Dr. Marvin Lynch, the young white doctor who examined the two girls and determined that they had not been raped, as claimed. Dr. Lynch refused to corroborate the state prosecutor’s theory of the case and was excused by the prosecutor from having to testify. Dr. Lynch told Judge Horton that the girls were lying and that no rape had occurred. This disclosure, along with a mountain of other exonerating evidence, convinced Judge Horton to set aside the jury’s guilty verdict.
Immediately after setting aside the verdict, Judge Horton was removed from the case by the Alabama Supreme Court. He was heavily criticized around the State for his ruling, but he stood his ground and did not back away from his decision.
This act of bravery resulted in Judge Horton’s defeat for re-election in 1934 and the public scorn of his family for decades. After growing threats to his life by white supremacists, Horton and his family were forced to flee from town. He left politics and spent the rest of his days working on his farm and running a small private practice. Judge Horton never served in public office again.
When addressing the lynch mob mentality that surrounded the case and the falsely accused defendants, Judge Horton explained that “the man who engages in anything that would cause the death of any of the prisoners is a murderer; he is not only a murderer but a cowardly murderer.”
“I absolutely have no patience with mob spirit. … Your very civilization depends upon the carrying out of your laws in an orderly manner,” said Horton.
The judge firmly believed that everyone should fairly receive due process, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Judge Horton died on March 28, 1973, at the age of 95.
In 1974, I began my legal representation of Clarence Norris, the last known surviving Scottsboro Boy at the time. In 1976, Norris received the first-ever full and unconditional pardon granted by the State of Alabama to a former death row inmate based upon a showing of “innocence”. Forty-three years after Judge Horton set aside Haywood Patterson’s guilty verdict, the State finally acknowledged that no rape had ever occurred in the Scottsboro Boys case.
To this day, Judge James E. Horton’s dedication to fairness and justice in Alabama’s state court judicial system is unrivaled. The closest modern-day state court jurist in Judge Horton’s class of honorable, courageous and duty-bound judges is Jefferson County Circuit Judge Tracie Todd. In 2016, Judge Todd declared Alabama’s sentencing scheme in death penalty cases unconstitutional and is now experiencing the same harsh treatment from the State’s appellate judges and prosecutors. Fortunately, she was re-elected to a second term in office this year.
Kudos to Congressman Mo Brooks for sponsoring the legislation to honor Judge James E. Horton. This national honor was long overdue.
PHOTO: Limestone County, Alabama Circuit Judge James E. Horton had courage when it counted the most. No state court judge in Alabama, living or dead, has matched Judge Horton’s courage and dedication to fairness in the judicial system. The U.S. Congress has finally honored Judge Horton for his role in providing justice in the case of "Scottsboro Boy" Haywood Patterson.