U.S. District Judge Charles A. Shaw learned crime fighting at his father’s knee. Literally. “Boys and girls, do not try this at home,” he writes in Watch Everything: A Judicial Memoir with a Point of View. Alvis Shaw, Sr., had returned from a hunting trip to find that his eldest son’s new Oldsmobile 442 had been stolen. He packed his hunting buddies still in their camouflage into his car, and with their shotguns posed, went looking for the missing Olds. A few blocks away, they spotted the culprits joyriding and gave chase. The youths fled on foot, leaving the keys in the ignition and the Olds intact.
Judge Shaw opens his memoir with other snapshots of his life, before he, as his father had before him, takes on the criminal justice system. His father was the judge’s childhood hero, who taught his three children that, while they faced racial discrimination, they could do anything if they tried hard enough.
The Shaw family lived in a segregated, middle-class North St. Louis neighborhood of well-kept houses on tree-lined streets. Within walking distance was their church, St. John A.M.E. Methodist, a grocery store and Cote Brilliante Elementary School. All three Shaw brothers—the “ABC brothers,” as Shaw calls them—attended the school, including older brother, Alvis, Jr., now deceased, and younger brother Booker T., now a partner at Thompson Coburn law firm and a former state circuit and appellate judge.
“Watch everything,” their father always said. “Watch out wherever you go and watch whomever you’re with.” He also taught the ABCs respect for the law and government by taking them to the old U.S. Customs and Courthouse where he worked as a customs inspector.
Stay-at-home mother, Sarah Weddle Shaw, saw to it that her sons attended church, sang in the choir, and won their Boy Scout badges. When she heard through the grapevine that they’d misbehaved—cussing, fighting, shooting peas at the floats in the Veiled Prophet Parade, or playing the dozens, she’d be waiting at home with a strap. Judge Shaw’s paralegal once asked Mrs. Shaw how she raised three successful sons. “I kept my foot on their heads at all times,” she said.
She taught her sons never to go into white restaurants, which then refused to serve blacks. Judge Shaw was 24 years of age before he ate in a white establishment.
Sarah Shaw sent the ABC’s to Denmark, Tenn., every summer to stay with her mother, Mama Lela. Knowing the train dining car would refuse to serve them, she packed shoe boxes lined with waxed paper and filled with fried chicken, cake, and fruit. On Mama Lela’s farm they fed the chickens and the hogs, milked the cows, pumped the water for cooking and bathing, and shelled peas. They rode to church twice a week in a cart pulled by a mule. Under Tennessee law, all children had to attend school during the summers so the ABCs went to a segregated one-room schoolhouse. Shaw writes how he appreciated his school back home, albeit segregated, where each grade had its own classroom.
His fifth-grade teacher, Miss Anna Wigley, cured him of his terrible stutter. “I don’t know where I’d be today,” he says, if not for her. Because private industry didn’t hire black professionals, his teachers often held advanced degrees. While at Sumner High School, Shaw decided to become a schoolteacher like Miss Wigley and attended Harris Teachers College, now Harris-Stowe.
Teaching at Cote Brilliante Elementary (and working extra 40-hour weeks on the side). Shaw realized that he lacked the patience to handle small children. He began the MBA program at University of Missouri at Columbia during the summers.
A course in business law changed his life. “I realized This is what I want to do!” the future judge writes. He completed his MBA and, with a full scholarship, began the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. As an intern and later a lawyer at the National Labor Relations Board, he discovered his talent for litigation.
Shaw and his wife, former Sumner classmate, Kay Ingram, returned to St. Louis where he went into private practice at what is now Lashly & Baer. Corporate law was not a good fit for “Charles being Charles,” as he says. After one partner made a racial slur, Shaw riposted, “If you were black one Friday night you might have so much fun that you’d never want to be white.” Yet the partners recognized his talent and their recommendation led to his next position as an assistant U. S. attorney, called an AUSA, in 1980. Working as a federal prosecutor who regularly tries complex and important cases is said to be the most fun for trial lawyers, and it was for Shaw.
“Bro Rabbit was in the briar patch again,” Shaw writes of the adrenalin rush he had during the combat of trial, and the pleasure of crafting appeals. He admired the characters on the bench like the late U.S. District Judge Kenneth Wangelin who twirled a .38 and spoke in four-letter Anglo-Saxon in his chambers. The AUSAs joked around in the office, but the solidarity was real. During dinner in a restaurant, a group of them overheard a diner use the N-word. Two white AUSAs and another black male AUSA jumped up and confronted the man.
Shaw noticed how the black custodial workers in the federal courthouse were proud to see African American prosecutors and judges. That prompted him to pitch his brown checked polyester suit and dress befitting his position. (Judge Shaw and I met when I covered the courts for KMOV-TV. He notes that he’s in a book I wrote about one of his trials.)
Several black judges suggested that Shaw apply for the bench. Shaw tried 12 times to become a state judge. Twelve times he campaigned, gathering letters of recommendation and undergoing lengthy interviews with the judicial commissioners, who select a panel of three applicants and send their names to the governor, who picks one. On the twelfth go-round, in 1987, Gov. John Ashcroft chose Shaw as a St. Louis circuit judge.
As he slipped on his black robe for the first time, Judge Shaw felt as though he were donning a costume. He realized he’d have to ‘play up’ to the new position. He had to become a fast learner about the law in each case before him. And he heeded his mother’s old lesson to listen to people. You can learn from anyone, she’d taught him, even a fool.
The human tragedies that came before him took their toll. Watching the parade of shackled men, mostly black, in his courtroom, Shaw said, “Do white people commit any crimes?” He recalled Richard Pryor’s joke, “People come to court to find justice and that’s what they find, ‘Just us.’”
What he found most difficult was sentencing. Not only was he taking away a person’s liberty, he was affecting the defendant’s family and community. “It’s a heavy burden of responsibility to impose a just and fair sentence, one that would serve to punish the crime and protect society, but was no harsher than necessary,” Judge Shaw writes.
His dream of the federal bench returned. his time he only had to try twice. He is grateful that his late parents lived to see him sworn in as federal district judge of Eastern Missouri, in 1993. (He thanks the lawyers at Lashly, the other AUSAs, his law clerks, paralegals, everyone who helped him through his career.)
Federal judges hold lifetime appointments as Article Three judges under the U.S. Constitution. They can be removed only by impeachment. As a federal judge, Shaw would wield immense power in civil and criminal cases that affect the everyday lives of Americans. His opinions would be cited as legal precedent throughout other jurisdictions in the Eighth U.S. Circuit which covers the center slice of America from Minnesota to Arkansas.
The issues raised in criminal cases are the core of our judicial system, Shaw points out. He was ahead of his time in fighting the mandatory sentencing guidelines in drug cases. He says that Congress took away the discretionary power of the federal judiciary and gave it to prosecutors who decide what charges to bring against the defendant, which determines his sentence. “The compulsory sentencing parameters … basically reduced us [judges] to postal mail sorters … placing mail in a predetermined slot,” he says. Defendants instead should be treated as individuals with different backgrounds and circumstances.
He fought especially the disparity in sentencing between cases of crack cocaine, which blacks predominately use, compared to the powder coke preferred by whites. Many blacks charged with possession were poor and uneducated, and received “unimaginable” neglect and abuse growing up. Shaw writes:
If you have children, think for a moment how hard it was, how much care…time, effort and heartache it took to teach your children to behave, to learn, to achieve, to be responsible, and do what is right. Think about how many times that child failed…and you needed to provide continued and repeated guidance, punishment or encouragement…Then think what a child might be like if he or she had been one of multiple children raised in poverty by a mentally ill or drug-addicted mother who didn’t know or care if the child went to school, didn’t provide regular meals or a safe nurturing home…
(Shaw’s only child, a son, is now a practicing psychiatrist.) Shaw wrote the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the President about the unfairness of mandatory crack and coke sentences. The war on drugs, he said, was hurting the black community. In an editorial published 2000 in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he cited the huge cost to the government of incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders.
Shaw disagreed in open court with the AUSAs, asking how a “guideline” could be mandatory? He complained that they, the prosecutors, by the way they charged the defendants had become the judges. When he sentenced a drug defendant below the mandatory guidelines, the AUSAs would appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals whose judges would reverse Shaw and send the cases back to him for re-sentencing.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the guidelines were advisory not mandatory, yet the AUSAs continued to follow the guidelines. After the justices found in 2007 that federal courts should not presume that the guidelines were always reasonable, the AUSAs continued to ask Shaw for punishments fitting the guidelines. His response: “Since you always recommend a guideline sentence we don’t even need your presence. We could just play your tape … It’s the same old song.”
This wasn’t justice in Shaw’s view, especially when nonviolent addicts were receiving harsher sentences than the violent criminals he’d tried in state court.
In 2010, law professor Michelle Alexander published her seminal The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, describing how the war on drugs was aimed at decimating the black community. No one believed we were winning the war, she says. Four years later, her book is still on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
Judge Shaw recommends that Eastern District of Missouri develop a drug court pretrial diversion program like other jurisdictions use. He points out that supervision and education are much cheaper, too, for taxpayers than incarceration.
Saying that his conscience won’t allow him to send people to prison for excessive amounts of time, Judge Shaw took senior status and no longer hears criminal cases. As he completed this book last summer, U.S. Attorney Eric Holder issued a memorandum that mandatory minimum sentences should be reserved for “serious, high level or violent drug traffickers.”
Ironically, a civil case caused the biggest uproar in his judicial career. The furor made The New York Times. Judge Shaw dismissed the lawsuit brought by a St. Louis police sergeant against the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Board of Commissioners. The officer then asked Shaw to recuse himself because he knew the president of the police board, Anne-Marie Clarke. Judge Shaw refused and the sergeant appealed to the Eighth Circuit, which reversed the dismissal. The appellate judges wrote that his relationship with Ms. Clarke “troubled” them and asked Shaw to explain.
Had he been white, or the police officer black, Shaw believes that the Eighth Circuit’s opinion would have been different. He and Ms. Clarke were of “the same small generation of African American lawyers” who went to each other’s home for large group social events and planning meetings for black professionals. This issue goes back to the history of African-Americans socializing at home because restaurants or clubs declined to serve them. (Gail Millissa Grant describes this in her memoir, At the Elbows of My Elders: One Family’s Journey Toward Civil Rights 2009.)
Saying he was “offended [and] insulted,” Judge Shaw removed himself from the case. The Times wrote that the Eighth Circuit “scolded” Shaw, accusing him of “racially oriented speculation.”
“The appellate judges were unfair to Judge Shaw,” says a well-respected white lawyer. “Shaw is black and therefore not part of the old boy’s club. A lot of white judges handle lots of cases from lawyers they know. You can hardly get around it if you’re prominent enough to be appointed to the federal bench.”
Watch Everything raises the uncomfortable issue that we have a double standard by which we judge black professionals. Shaw quotes his parents’ favorite African proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, the tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”