Tennessee Judge Apologizes for KKK Reference While Talking About Mask Mandate

A judge in Tennessee has been reprimanded for an "inappropriate" comment he made in court, having referenced the Ku Klux Klan while discussing the enforcement of wearing a mask.

The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct condemned Coffee County General Session Court Judge Jere Ledsinger for his remarks he made in July in front of a court of criminal defendants, some of whom were Black.

According to the letter of public reprimand, Ledsinger criticized the requirement that face coverings be worn in courtrooms by stating "'the Grand Wizard of our Supreme Court said we have to wear these masks', or words to the effect."

The Grand Wizard comment is a reference to the leader of the KKK.

On August 24, Ledsinger admitted he made the remarks in order to "soften any resistance by those present in the courtroom to the requirements of wearing a mask, as we have had negative feedback to this [supreme court] mandate."

In a follow-up phone call with the Disciplinary Council in September, the judge said he regretted making the "spontaneous" statement and did not mean any disrespect.

The letter of reprimand, written by Board Chair Dee David Gay, adds: "Judges are expected to maintain the highest standard of conduct and dignity of judicial office at all times. This obligation includes the specific responsibility of avoiding words or conduct that manifest bias or prejudice.

"Comments like the one at issue undermine public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the legal process, especially for those persons who, after hearing an insensitive comment from the judge, have their cases adjudicated by that judge," the letter adds.

"Such persons may reasonably question whether they received impartial and unbiased treatment even though, as here, there is nothing to suggest bias or prejudice in any case."

Gay said that there is no evidence Ledsinger intended to cast aspersions on anyone at the court, but those who heard his comments had no way of determining his intent.

"Once such comments are made, the damage is done," the letter said.

The letter further adds that while the remark was made "off-the-cuff" and not meant to be offensive, such comments reflect an "ethical lapse" that undermines public confidence that judges are unbiased.

"The Board trusts that the reprimand imposed today will result in an elevated consciousness about how to approach this and similar situations going forward," Gay concludes.

Ledsinger has been contacted for further comment.

A judges gavel rests on top of a desk in the courtroom of the newly opened Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum February 3, 2009 in Miami, Florida. A judge in Tennessee has been reprimanded for an “inappropriate” comment he made referencing the KKKK while discussing the wearing of masks. Joe Raedle/Getty