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As a lawyer, I routinely practiced in courtrooms festooned with the portraits of judges who had presided over each given court in the past. While waiting for my case to be called, I hardly gave the portraits—overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male—much thought at all, except perhaps to marvel at how sartorial styles for facial hair had changed so much since the late 1800s. At appellate courts, I strolled past the gallery of portraits of appellate jurists past and present, a mental journey that would eventually culminate in seeing my own portrait join those (mostly) solemn-looking ranks. For over 31 years, I regarded the judicial portraits that adorn our courthouses the way most lawyers and judges probably do: as a way of honoring those judges, both living and dead, and as a means of expressing the legal system’s connection of the past with the present.

However, recent developments and our country’s ongoing dialogue about systemic racism compel us to reconsider judicial portraits and the messages they may convey. In September 2020, Judge Timothy K. Sanner of Virginia’s 16th Judicial Circuit Court ordered that a near life-size portrait of Robert E. Lee be removed from the Louisa County Circuit courtroom where an African American man, Darcel Murphy, was due to stand trial for capital murder. The order came in response to a motion filed by Murphy’s attorney, Doug Ramseur, and it was only issued after a nearly two-year effort by Ramseur to ensure that the trial not be held in a courtroom featuring “images that could be interpreted as glorifying, memorializing, or otherwise endorsing the efforts of those who fought on behalf of the Confederate cause or its principles.” Ramseur’s motion argued that the two most enduring symbols of the Confederacy, its flag and Lee, both “have been misappropriated for racist purposes and have been used to instill fear amongst African-American citizens.” While Ramseur didn’t feel the court itself harbored any racial bias, the messaging sent by the “presence of Confederate symbols and icons in the courtroom” could have “a powerful influence on other participants and observers, such as jurors, witnesses, family of loved ones involved in this case, and the citizens of Louisa.”

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