Judge Matthis W. Piel: In the End, Justice Prevailed
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published January 13, 2022
An Editorial Opinion
In 1974, I was a young associate in the civil rights law firm of Gray, Seay, and Langford. At the time, there were less than a dozen black lawyers working in Alabama. All of us litigated cases.
The frontlines in the raging battle for equal justice for African-Americans in Alabama were located in local, state, and federal courtrooms. Young black lawyers like me did not have the luxury of apprenticing for years under the firm's senior trial lawyers -- Fred D. Gray, Solomon S. Seay, Jr., and Charles D. Langford. They were bogged downed handling massive class action cases. Fred was working feverishly to secure justice for 623 black plaintiffs in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Solomon was swamped with major school desegregation cases throughout Alabama. Charles was handling a lot of the firm's non-civil rights cases.
I was sent straight to the frontlines to represent individual clients like Mr. Clarence Norris, the last surviving "Scottsboro Boy," Elizabeth Williams, a black woman who was sentenced to 218 years in prison for aiding her boyfriend in stealing three chickens, and Bernard Whitehurst, an unarmed and innocent black man who was fatally shot in the back by a racist white Montgomery police officer after he was mistakenly identified as a robbery suspect.
I was taught to stand tall for my clients and unload all of my evidence in every case. I was also taught that my real adversary in my cases would be the trial judge since all of them were white and almost always hostile towards our clients and us.
One of the worst judges in Alabama at the time was Matthis W. Piel, the chief judge of the Montgomery, Alabama municipal court. Judge Piel was a flaming racist. He presided over the city's misdemeanor court docket. The prosecutors in his court were white. Nearly all of the officers on the city police force in the early 1970s were white.
Judge Piel's courtroom was a living hell for black lawyers and their clients. It was also a classic "debtor's court" -- one where black men and women were railroaded, imprisoned, fined, and held in jail until their fines were paid. Wealthy and upper middle-class white offenders could have their cases "fixed" by making a call to the mayor's office or Judge Piel's chambers. Middle-class and extremely poor white offenders would typically be scolded by Piel, but they would not be jailed.
During my first trial in Judge Piel's court, I brought law books with U.S. Supreme Court case to support my legal arguments. When Piel saw the Supreme Court law books, he promptly told me, "that shit does not apply in my court." Piel never looked me in the eyes, or called me "Mr. Watkins," or "Counselor," or "Sir," or any name or title that would affirm my humanity. He just held his head down and barked out his remarks to me.
It was in Judge Piel's courtroom that I had my first encounter with an arrogant, out-of-control, racist Montgomery police officer. His name was Officer Rambo. He was the chief witness in the case against my client. I crucified him on cross-examination. Once Rambo stepped down from the witness stand, he came up to me and put his finger in my face. Rambo said in a loud voice, "you must be new; you don't know who you are fucking with."
I look over at Judge Piel, who did not say a word. Piel did not bang his gavel to restore order in his court, and he did not reprimand Officer Rambo. When I realized that I was on my own, I responded to Rambo in a loud voice by telling him to "kiss my ass." The black folks in the packed courtroom exploded into loud cheers and applause. Rambo backed off and said, "nigger, we're going to teach you a lesson." Piel said nothing.
She Was Black, Elderly, Alone, Afraid, Crying, Praying, and Needed My Help
One day, I was in Judge Piel's courtroom waiting for my client's case to be called. While sitting on the front row studying my case file and trial outline, I heard Judge Piel and the prosecutor loudly berating an elderly black woman in a maid's uniform. The woman did not have a lawyer representing her. She was alone, afraid, and unprotected in a very hostile courtroom. Piel and the prosecutor were bombarding this woman with questions that she clearly did not understand. In frustration, the woman bowed her head and started crying and praying.
I couldn't take it anymore. I jumped from my seat and rushed to this woman's side. I forcefully interrupted the beat-down of this elderly woman and announced to Judge Piel that I was her lawyer. I apologized for not hearing her name called on the docket. In truth, I didn't even know the woman's name and we did not have time to get acquainted.
I announced that we were ready for trial and asked the city to call its first witness. I didn't know anything about this woman's case. I put my arms around the woman and told her everything would be okay.
The City called one police officer and two civilian witnesses. Out of rage and anger, I obliterated all three witnesses with a blistering, in-your-face, cross-examination of them.
The witnesses were intimidated by my aggressive style of cross-examination and their testimony quickly fell apart, leaving Judge Piel with no option but to acquit this woman. She was shocked that we had won her case, but she was very happy. Blacks in the courtroom swarmed the woman and me to celebrate this rare victory and to give us accolades.
I walked the woman out of Judge Piel's courtroom. Now, her tears of fear and despair had turned into tears of joy. She was a single mom with five children. She had no car, no money, and no hope of justice. This is why she bowed her head and prayed as Judge Piel and the prosecutor berated her with sarcastic words and questions. She thanked me over and over again, saying God had answered her prayers.
The woman told me she had no way to pay me. I told her that a wise janitor at the University of Alabama's law school -- Mr. Ramus Rhodes -- had paid the full price for me to stand up for her in Judge Piel's courtroom and that she owed me nothing. We hugged. I dried the woman's tears with my handkerchief. After we said goodbye to each other, I rushed back into Judge Piel's courtroom for my next battle against the seemingly endless war against white racism.
Reversal of Fortunes
On October 9, 1979, I was elected to the Montgomery city council. I was the youngest council member in the history of the city. I was one of four black council members on the nine-member Montgomery city council. I was also the only lawyer on the council.
Shortly after taking office, Judge Piel's term of office was nearing an end and he desperately wanted reappointment to another six-year term. Judge Piel called for an appointment to see me. I told him I would come see him at his chambers in the municipal court, which I did.
When I entered Judge Piel's chambers, he was lying on a couch. Piel's body was too ravaged with cancer for him to sit up during our meeting. He asked for my vote for his reappointment. He desperately needed reappointment to his judgeship to maintain his municipal employee health insurance coverage during this difficult period in his life.
The council was split 4 to 4 between Judge Piel and another candidate who was backed by Council President Willie Peake for this judgeship. Peake was an independent, fair-minded white businessman who always voted based upon the best interests of his district constituents and the city as a whole.
For over an hour, I listened to Judge Piel pitch his case for reappointment. The entire time Judge Piel was talking, all I could see in my mind's eye were the images of the black defendants Piel railroaded in his courtroom. I saw their tears. I felt their pain. I heard their wailing spirits. I didn't say a word while Piel talked.
When Judge Piel finished, he was crying and begging for my vote. I told him I would talk to my neighborhood leaders and district residents to see how they wanted me to vote on his reappointment.
A few days later, the all-white local Bar association, Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, and several white business groups lobbied me to support Piel's reappointment. These groups had zero interest in how blacks were treated in Piel's courtroom.
On the day of the council meeting, the votes were still split 4 to 4, with Peake and three blacks supporting Peake's candidate. The other four whites on the council backed Judge Piel.
I asked to speak last before we took the vote. Judge Piel's family and supporters packed the left side of the small council chambers. Piel was present in a wheelchair. His son, Richard, who was a local attorney, was in the audience, as well. My black neighborhood leaders, political constituents, and other black citizens packed the right side of the council chambers.
When it was time for me to speak, I told the story of the woman whose case is mentioned in this article. I also told the audience what Judge Piel said to me about U.S. Supreme Court cases not applying in his courtroom. Finally, I mentioned Judge Piel's failure to reign-in Officer Rambo after Rambo verbally assaulted me in Piel's presence.
At the end of my speech, I looked at the blacks in the audience and told them, "God knows that you have suffered gross injustice in our municipal courts for over a hundred years; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ms. Rosa Parks, and untold thousands of blacks have been railroaded in this city's court system; God has heard your silent prayers for the equal justice in our courts; and He is answering them tonight." With that, I cast the last and deciding vote to get rid of one of the most vicious racists I had encountered in my legal career. Piel's family members wailed loudly as the judge was wheeled out of the council chambers.
Once Judge Piel and his supporters were gone, I thanked the blacks who remained in the council chambers for persevering in the vineyards of racial hatred and never giving up on their quest for equal justice. I reminded them that the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s, the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 that killed four little girls in Sunday School, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Selma-to-Montgomery march on "Bloody Sunday," and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made this moment possible. The hands that picked cotton, cleaned gutters and sewers, mopped floors and cleaned toilets as maids and janitors, loaded garbage trucks, cut grass, dug ditches, labored in the 120 degree heat on roofing jobs, busted rocks into gravel, cleaned used bricks with meat-cleavers, walked miles to and from work in menial jobs, and languished in Montgomery's notorious debtor's courts, would pick the city of Montgomery's municipal court judges from this day, forward.
Judge Matthis W. Piel died on January 12, 1980, but his racist spirit lives on in many of today's local, state and federal judges in Alabama. As long as these judicial bigots live and work among us, my work as a "freedom fighter" must go on.
"Freedom fighting" is a noble profession. I have always been willing to pay whatever price is necessary to protect the dignity of the "least of these" and to elevate their humanity in every venue.
My longstanding commitment to equal justice has made me an extremely controversial figure in Alabama's ultra-conservative white community. In many white circles, I am hated on sight.
Today, I am locked in a fierce battle to dismantle Alabama's all-white, 19-judge appellate court system. Joseph W. Perkins, Jr., Alabama Power Company's perennial political "dirty tricks" operator and its paid neutralizer of black political and civil rights leaders, is the chief defender of this modern-day form of judicial apartheid in the Alabama Supreme Court case of Donald V. Watkins, et. al, v. Matrix, LLC, and Joseph W. Perkins, Jr., Case No. 1200892.
Alabama's appellate court system was all-white when I started practicing law in 1973, and it is all-white today. This all-white appellate court system is Alabama's shining example to the nation of what white "bloc voting" can accomplish when it is properly motivated to redeem "white supremacy."
I am determined to dismantle Alabama's all-white appellate court system in 2022, even if I have to do it alone.