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Judge resigns after allegations of racially prejudiced remarks

Covington Municipal Court Judge Steve Hathorn has resigned after the court clerk filed a personnel complaint against him, alleging prejudiced comments toward back defendants. (Special photo)

Covington Municipal Court Judge Steve Hathorn has resigned after the court clerk filed a personnel complaint against him, alleging prejudiced comments toward back defendants. (Special photo)

COVINGTON – Municipal Court Judge Steve Hathorn resigned Monday after the Covington court clerk filed a personnel complaint accusing him of making prejudiced comments toward black defendants.

Hathorn, a resident of Rockdale County, was appointed by the Covington City Council in June 2012 and received a salary of $28,000 plus health benefits, according to Human Resource Director Ronnie Cowan. Hathorn also has a private law practice in Covington and has served as Oxford Municipal Court judge for more than 16 years.

After city officials returned from a closed session during Monday’s meeting, Hathorn announced his resignation because he said he would rather not divide the council by arguing over the incident.

In his speech, Hathorn recounted the pre-trial diversion cases referenced in the complaint and noted he did not “intend to offend anyone.”

Pre-trial diversion is a program designed for offenders to avoid criminal charges and a criminal record.

“What I have said is mine, I own it. I’ve worked hard for y’all and I ask anyone to challenge my record as a judge, the decisions I’ve made and the passion I brought to my job,” Hathorn said. “It’s going to be difficult for me to continue to work with someone whose confidence I’ve truly lost even if they’re sincere in what they’ve brought forward in accusations.”

Court Clerk Stephanie Finnie wrote a complaint letter to the city’s Human Resources Department following court hearings of pre-trial diversion cases on Wednesday, Jan. 22. She has worked as the court clerk for 17 years.

In the letter, Finnie stated that she felt she and several others who were in the courtroom were “subjected to a form of prejudice.”

Finnie recounted an incident involving a 19-year-old black female who had been previously sentenced for shoplifting and was appearing before Hathorn in her pre-trial diversion case regarding a probation matter.

The letter states, “He said, ‘I get sick of giving young African Americans criminal histories but …, it’s because y’all get in trouble. Do you understand? Then we give you pre-trial diversion and you throw it away … then you got this tag hangin’ around your neck for the rest of your life that says … criminal.’”

The courtroom audio obtained by the Citizen closely follows what Finnie wrote in the personnel complaint letter.

“I get so sick of giving young African Americans criminal histories. Y’all get in trouble. Do you understand? Then we give you pre-trial diversion and you throw it away. Then you’ve got this tag hanging around your neck that says criminal,” Hathorn said, according to the courtroom audio.

Finnie’s stated in her letter that the comments made by Hathorn were “totally inappropriate” and “no representative of the city of Covington should be allowed to talk to people this way.”

According to the courtroom audio, Hathorn told one man appearing before him, “Having a criminal record hanging around your neck is just a log chain dragging you down because when it comes down to it … who are they going to hire? A guy with a record or without a record?”

Hathorn told the council he was trying to get the offender’s attention.

Hathorn defended to the council his comments made during the pre-trial diversion cases on Jan. 22, at one point saying they were directed to the probation officer not the individuals.

“This was the end of the 18 months of observation on my part. I explained, and perhaps it wasn’t politically correct, but as a young African American man with no education and who I had mandated, as I recall, to finish pre-trial diversion, which included getting his GED, staying drug-free and finishing his probation, but he hadn’t done any of these,” Hathorn told the council. “I told him he was further disadvantaging himself. As a 57-year-old man who has lived in the South, I have no problem looking at the council and saying young black people are still disadvantaged in our society.”

Upon Hathorn’s resignation, Cowan said the Human Resources Department will contact the membership of the Alcovy Bar Association in order to advertise the open position.

Cowan said alternate Municipal Court Judge Ben Hendricks will conduct the courtroom on Wednesdays as scheduled until a replacement is appointed.

Hathorn is the second judge to leave within two years. Hathorn was appointed after city officials received a letter of complaint against former Municipal Court Judge David Strickland in February 2012 before the City Council opted not to reappoint him.

Hathorn was an attorney for Alexander and Royston in Covington from 1986 to 1991, and was chief assistant district attorney with the Alcovy Judicial Circuit from 1984 to 1986 and assistant district attorney from 1982 to 1984. He was assistant solicitor in Cobb State Court in 1982.