Without Fear or Favor: Judge James Edwin Horton and the Trial of the 'Scottsboro Boys'
35 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2008
Date Written: 2008
One evening, Circuit Judge James Horton, Jr. was having dinner with his family in his antebellum home in central Athens, Alabama; Limestone's county seat. Dinners in the Horton household were an opportunity to discuss events of the day. In early March of 1933, there were plenty of events to discuss. The ringing of their party line phone interrupted the Horton family dinner. The judge excused himself from the table. When he returned a few minutes later, he looked grim. The retrial of the Scottsboro Boys had been transferred to Decatur in neighboring Morgan County. He was to be the presiding judge. Sensational accounts of the alleged rape had run in local papers. Rapid-fire trials, beginning just twelve days after the arrests, gave locals little reason to think their initial view concerning the defendants' guilt was wrong. Few bothered to speculate if the evidence might have looked different had the defendants been given better representation than the half-hearted defense provided by their attorneys.
The announcement that Judge James Horton would preside at the retrial of the Scottsboro Boys was received favorably. The Limestone Democrat, Horton's hometown, praised his unusually equable nature, great legal ability and fairness. Horton would give the foreign defense no reason to complain, wrote the paper's editor. The lead prosecutor, Alabama Attorney General Thomas Knight, also expressed pleasure with the choice, telling the press that Horton would make an excellent judge. There was little in Judge Horton's background to give Knight cause for concern. As a state representative and senator for ten years, Horton had devoted himself to election reform and road construction, not contentious social issues. One observer noted, Horton was not very notably social-minded, and was liberal only in the sense of putting the rules of the game above the desire to win. He held many of the beliefs one would expect of a large landowner, politician, and planter in a small town in rural South. He accepted, as did the vast majority of white Alabamans in 1933, the rightness of segregation.
Horton approached the upcoming retrial of the Scottsboro Boys with the resolve - despite his belief that the defendants were most likely guilty - to do everything he could to present a trial that would do the South proud. Despite the knowledge that setting aside the Patterson verdict would likely mean an end to his judicial career, the decision for Horton was not a difficult one. A judge must do his duty. My mother early taught me a phrase she said was her father's motto, Horton later recalled. It has frequently come to mind in difficult situations. The phrase Horton learned on his mother's knee was Justitia fiat coelum ruat - Let justice be done though the Heavens may fall.
Shortly after Horton's death, county officials installed a plaque on the south wall of the second-floor Limestone County courtroom in which he read his opinion setting aside the jury's verdict in the Patterson trial. In raised bronze on the plaque are inscribed words from the judge's instructions to the jury: 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.
Keywords: Famous Trials, Trials, Scottsboro, Scottsboro Boys, Judge Horton, James Horton
JEL Classification: K10, K40, K41, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation