The Fields Case 

In which we begin the evaluation of a public scold.

Richard Fields is, by his own self-description and in large part by reality, a civil rights attorney. His long immersion as a white in various legal issues involving African Americans and his involvement to that end with such esteemed pioneers as Irvin Salky and Russell Sugarmon is a matter of public record.

That Fields should in the last several years have come under attack from more than one corner of Memphis’ black community as a “racist” would seem to be ironic in the extreme, but allegations of that sort have begun to multiply — most insistently from influential blogger Thaddeus Matthews, a dedicated Fields adversary, but also from prominent members of the Herenton-Chism political organization in which Fields himself has historically played a significant role.

One of the most recent accusers in that regard has been former city attorney Robert Spence, who, as a candidate in the Democratic primary for the vacant District 30 state Senate seat, was relentlessly attacked by Fields for various alleged misdeeds in a widely circulated open letter. It was the second such intervention by Fields in the electoral process, his first being a similarly well-distributed letter last year containing Fields’ endorsements (and condemnations) of candidates for judicial posts. Understandably, Spence, defeated last week by state representative Beverly Marrero, might be regarded as a less than objective witness.

Yet he makes an interesting point, noting that most of the lawyers attacked by Fields in his letter of last year — for misconduct or lack of qualifications or whatever — were black and charging further that such African Americans who got Fields’ endorsement were mere window-dressing. “Having set out to denigrate black lawyers, he added a couple to his endorsement list to make it look good.”

Sour grapes?

The fact is that the add-on aspect of Spence’s accusation is backed up by other sources — notably Janet Shipman and Regina Morrison Newman, two well-regarded whites who ran for General Sessions court positions last year and had received firm assurances from Fields that he would both support and endorse them.

Just before issuing his list, however, Fields withdrew his promised endorsements, opting instead for two equally well-regarded African Americans, Lee Coffey in Shipman’s race and Deborah Henderson in Newman’s.

“He got in my face and told me I shouldn’t have had anything to do with Brett Thompson,” recalls Newman, whose campaign had engaged a public relations firm that employed Thompson, a well-connected former state representative who, years ago, had been convicted of misconduct as a lawyer and disbarred.

But wait: The aforesaid Coffey had also enjoyed Thompson’s services, as indeed had several of the candidates included on Fields’ endorsement list.

Two other factors are worth weighing. Coffey and Henderson, like most of Fields’ endorsees, also appeared on the endorsement list of the Shelby County Republican Party. Coincidental perhaps, but it is a fact that Fields, earlier in 2006, had been compelled to resign from the Shelby County Democratic executive committee because of his overt activity on behalf of Republicans.

Fields had chosen to work in harness with lawyers representing the state Republican Party in seeking to void what seemed to be the tainted election to the state Senate of Democrat Ophelia Ford in favor of Republican Terry Roland. Not even his detractors on the Democratic committee quarreled with Fields’ right to pursue what he regarded as justice — only with what they saw as an implicit conflict of purpose.

Spence, Shipman, and Newman concur on the likelihood that Fields’ Republican associations figured significantly in his endorsement choices, but they agree as well that, under fire from Matthews and other African-American critics, Fields’ most compelling motive was likely his need to do some old-fashioned ticket-balancing, with Coffey and Henderson being the beneficiaries.

At least partly because of the novelty of his epistolary interventions and his self-styled role as an arbiter of candidates’ credentials, both of Fields’ open letters had an impact on the election results. In both circumstances, white voters especially were observed taking copies of Fields’ recommendations to the polls with them.

“There’s no doubt. That was enough to cause my defeat,” said Shipman, now employed in county government. Newman, whose margin of defeat was even smaller, was another likely casualty.

“I honestly think the National Bar Association and the Memphis Bar Association should have condemned his letter,” said Spence, who did his own "condemnation" of this year's Fields letter with one of his own, in which, among other things, he accused Fields of being "mentally unstable."

That, allegation, too, may be worth addressing.

Meanwhile, the moral of the story is a variant of the old caveat: Who shall heal the healer? In this case: Who shall judge the judger?

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