A judge who was demanding – for his own use – the names and addresses of all the homeschool students and their parents in his Mississippi judicial district threatened school officials with jail if they didn’t give him what he wanted.
The reports of the threat from Judge Joe Dale Walker of the state’s 13th Chancery district court come from one of the attendance officers involved in the case in which Walker demanded the student data.
“He threatened us,” said one of the school officials later served with an order the judge wrote and signed for himself.
The WND reported a week ago when Walker was ordered by the state Supreme Court to explain his demands.
His order for details about homeschoolers has been suspended until at least April 18, when his explanation is due to the high court.
Walker declined to respond to multiple messages left by WND seeking comment.
The state Supreme Court got involved when lawyers with the Home School Legal Defense Association, which fights for the rights of homeschooling worldwide, was informed of the case by some of its members in Mississippi and petitioned the high court on an emergency basis.
Here is the judge’s order:
Walker had called a meeting with the school attendance officers and told them to provide the students’ names and addresses. They hesitated, as under federal law such information is confidential, and the judge said he had researched the issue and it was safe for them to give him the information, according to one of the attendance officers who spoke with WND today.
However, the state education department told them not to provide the information, and the judge, upset with the results, threatened that he would go write his own court order and then they would have to comply, the attendance officer said.
“The judge wanted information. We tried to explain we didn’t think we could give it to him,” the officer, whose identity is being withheld by WND. “He wanted it. He threatened us, said if he gave us a court order and we did not fulfill, we would be in contempt and would be arrested.”
When WND reported on the case, it was noted that the information is being sought by the judge himself, as there is no underlying case, motion or dispute that could have prompted the request. There was no case number on the order, and there were no other documents in the court file.
A blogger in the region, however, detailed how it appeared that Walker was trying to determine “which families are legitimately homeschooling and which are using the homeschool statute to circumvent compulsory attendance laws.”
A WND source who is familiar with the details of the dispute confirmed that appeared to be accurate.
Blogger Natalie West Winningham said the judge apparently wants to prosecute the parents of juveniles who show up in his youth court and who “appear not to be receiving legitimate homeschool instruction as well as to flush out other ‘fake homeschoolers.'”
“Perhaps Judge Walker either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that interviewing, profiling, visiting or otherwise needlessly interfering with homeschool families for the sole purpose of comparing them against an arbitrary, legally non-existent and unenforceable standard with the intent of potentially charging the ‘failing’ parents with a crime is not legal,” she wrote.
“Clearly, the judge is not concerned only with the youths who appear in his court. Otherwise, why would the court order seek to secure ALL of the names and addresses of homeschoolers.”
Further, she questioned what use would be made of the information.
“If I were a vigilante judge who got my hands on a datatbase of homeschoolers’ names and addresses, perhaps I would cross-reference it with past criminal records, DHS cases, driving records, credit histories, tax information, etc. And if I thought I could get away with it, maybe I’d send someone to your home to interview you and hope that you don’t know your legal rights.
“I’m not saying that Judge Walker would do those things. But there are many possibilities and none of them is pleasant,” she wrote.
Spokeswoman Beverly Kraft of the state court system told WND earlier that the issue as it was presented to the state Supreme Court was a “confidential” case about which no documents, no information and no explanation was available.
The judge’s order noted that the “cause” for the order “came on for hearing on the court’s own motion,” but the HSLDA said apparently no hearing ever was held.
The HSLDA suggested the order is highly unusual and could provide a “chilling” effect on not only homeschoolers but any group whose members’ names may at some point be demanded by a judge.
An attorney for the group, James Mason, told WND that in the years he has worked with homeschool issues, he never before has seen such an order.
“It’s a very chilling prospect,” he said. “The plain fact is if judges start behaving this way – [targeted could be] people who attend churches or synagogues [or other groups].”
“That would have a chilling effect on freedom of association, and the exercise of other freedoms,” he said.
A judge in a similar order could demand the names of patriot organizations, tea party groups, Democrat groups, GOP groups or even labor, teacher or parent groups.
HSLDA said that after attendance officers at the schools got the order, they notified homeschoolers, enclosing a copy of the judge’s order.
“The letters cited the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and asked the families to notify the attendance officer by April 8, 2011, if they intended to initiate legal action to prevent release of the protected information sought by Judge Walker,” HSLDA said.
The notice from the HSLDA to its members said the judge also wanted the addresses of all homeschoolers in Smith, Lawrence, Covington, Simpson and Jefferson Davis counties.
Walker’s order listed no parties but only said “RE: HOMESCHOOL.”
“We believe that Judge Walker’s order is an inappropriate use of judicial power,” said Michael Farris, chairman of HSLDA.
The state’s court website says chancery courts “have jurisdiction over disputes in matters involving equity; domestic matters including adoptions, custody disputes and divorces; guardianships; sanity hearings; wills; and challenges to constitutionality of state laws. Land records are filed in Chancery Court.”
The chancery courts also are given jurisdiction in juvenile matters in counties that have no county court.