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Federal Judge Still Overseeing Discrimination Case After Bizarre Race Remarks

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U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes

A federal judge in Houston who made bizarre remarks during a hearing on a racial discrimination case he’s overseeing will not step down. A 5th Circuit ruling last week, rejecting a petition to have Hughes recused from the case, appears to be the final word on the matter.

Jitendra Shah, an Indian-American engineer, sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in July 2012, alleging that the agency had discriminated against him on the basis of his race and religion. Shah wants U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, a 72-year-old Reagan appointee, to recuse himself from the case because of comments Hughes made during a December pre-trial hearing.

In that ex parte hearing, during which only TDCJ lawyers were present, Hughes launched into a colloquy on Adolf Hitler’s use of swastikas, the origin of Caucasians and the futility of diversity programs at universities. He quoted Eleanor Roosevelt opining that “staffs of one color always work better.” It is not the first time Hughes’ views on race during discrimination cases have attracted attention. In January, the 5th Circuit admonished Hughes for dismissing a racist slur as “political” and opining that “no black individually and no blacks collectively owns [sic] the sensitivity rights to fried chicken or anything else.”

In January, Shah asked Hughes to recuse himself from the case, arguing that the judge had demonstrated bias and couldn’t rule on the case impartially. Hughes refused to rule on the motion and Shah took the matter to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Last week, the 5th Circuit rejected Shah’s petition and Hughes remains on the case. In a filing with the court, the judge defended his remarks. “Discussion of history and race does not evince a bias against people who are Indian, Hindu, both, or anyone else,” he wrote.

Complaining that diversity directors make too much, Hughes told the TDCJ attorneys, Allan Cook and Jonathan Stone, “Why don’t they just hire people on ability and let diversity take care of itself? And what does the diversity director do? Go around and painting students different colors so that they think they were mixed?”

Later, the judge engaged in a back-and-forth with Cook on Shah’s race in which he declared Shah to be “Caucasian” and attempted to describe, Hughes later explained, “how a Sanskrit word for good luck became a symbol of a North-European political movement.” Judge for yourself.

JUDGE HUGHES: Well, what race is he to the extent those are meaningful at all?

STONE: He’s–he’s Asian, I think he said.

JUDGE HUGHES: That doesn’t-

COOK: I thought he said he was Hindu.

STONE: No. Yeah. When we asked him what race he was, he said his race was Hindu. So-

COOK: Right. And his religion was also Hindu.

JUDGE HUGHES: All right. So, he’s Caucasian?

COOK: No. He’s Indian.

JUDGE HUGHES: They’re Caucasian.

COOK: Okay.

JUDGE HUGHES: All right.

COOK: Okay.

JUDGE HUGHES: That’s where we came from.

COOK: All right.

JUDGE HUGHES: That’s why Adolph Hitler used the swastika.

COOK: Well–

JUDGE HUGHES: It was a symbol of good luck.

COOK: -Right.

JUDGE HUGHES: -in going in Sanskrit to the Aryan people which he claimed a bunch of Germans were. They act a lot like Germans.

According to Hughes, “they act a lot like Germans” was a “criticism of the current in German thought… that has called for a return to a mythical glory of the race when they were dominant.” He did not explain who the “they” was. Shah claims that the judge was referring to people of Indian descent and his comment “establishes that Judge Hughes harbors a bigoted, stereotyped view of Indians (as well as Germans).”

As to why he labeled Shah Caucasian, Hughes explained that he was referring to the anthropological understanding of the term, “a cluster of people stretching from Europe through the Caucasus Mountains to India” and a “crude allocation of seven billion people into three groupings.”

“Groups that broad may have minor genetic unity, but knowing that is inadequate for pubic [sic] decision-making.”

Hughes also mused on an Indian-American’s position in the workplace.

JUDGE HUGHES: The fact that he’s the only Indian there is a fact in the department’s favor. It would be real easy not to hire the first Indian.

COOK: It would be hard not to hire an Indian engineer, though.

JUDGE HUGHES: No.

COOK: A lot of engineers out there are Indian. And they actually offered a job to one recently who turned it down.

JUDGE HUGHES: Oh. But that’s when you’re hiring on merit. But sometimes people decide—Eleanor Roosevelt said staffs of one color always work better. They don’t put that on the postage stamp. But when you hire somebody who applies and there’s nobody else like them, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?

COOK: Sure.

JUDGE HUGHES: And then you kept him a long time.

COOK: Kept him a long time.

JUDGE HUGHES: All right. Well, I think it’s time for you to move to summary judgment.

Hughes defended his comments, writing that “the point of the court’s statement that it would be easy not to hire the first Indian person in a workplace; that is how people discriminate.”

Hughes also establishes that some of his best friends are Indian. “The court’s asserted hostility to Indians would surprise its immigrant or first-generation Indian doctors, friends, law clerks, and interns.”

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • Tejanarusa

    He has certainly demonstrated profound ignorance of history and misunderstanding of history and anthropology. Gonna need some serious expert witnesses, and then just start planning for an appeal. It’s sad how much misinformation this judge demonstrated, just in the quoted statements.

  • brandonrg

    Literally pulled out the “but I have ____ friends, I can’t be racist!” card

  • Lee Gibson

    “A 72-year-old Reagan appointee” kinda says it all.