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Fragile Gavel Award

“Fragile as reason is (and as limited as the law is as the institutionalized medium of reason), that's all we have between us and the tyranny of mere will and the cruelty of unbridled, undisciplined feelings.”
              --U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter

 At our Annual Celebration, GRACE presents the Judge Jay Burnett Fragile Gavel Award, recognizing courage in the fair administration of justice.  This honor is not awarded every year, but only when a member of the judiciary has distinguished him or herself by dispensing true justice in the face of tremendous pressures to the contrary.  To be honored with the Fragile Gavel Award, a judge must fairly and faithfully follow the dictates of the law even when the result will be unpopular.  We recognize this rare form of courage because others do not.  We bestow this honor because, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “Justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong, but in finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.”  Judges who know this – and who, more important, summon the fortitude to act upon it – are all that stand between us and “the tyranny of… unbridled, undisciplined feelings”.


Judge Jeannine Barr

In 2009, GRACE is proud to present the Fragile Gavel Award to Harris County District Judge Jeannine Barr, who had the courage to prohibit prosecutors from using their peremptory strikes to bar African-American citizens from jury service.  In refusing to wink and nod at the “race-neutral” explanations of two prosecutors who used 60% of their strikes to eliminate all African-Americans from a jury panel, in resisting the gravitational tug of business-as-usual and “this is how we’ve always done things,” Judge Barr’s firm adherence to the letter of the law sent a clear message that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office would be no longer be immune from constitutional imperatives and that Houstonians of color will no longer be excluded from one of the most important roles a citizen can play in our democracy.

Judge Barr is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and a graduate of LSU law school (1985).  A former English teacher, she served as a Harris County Assistant District Attorney (1986 –1994) before being elected to the 182nd District Court in November 1994.  She is currently serving her fourth term.  Judge Barr is a longtime member of the Houston Bar Association’s Night Court cast, which performs an all-lawyer musical review each year.  She is married to former District Judge Jim Barr and together they enjoy traveling as much as possible.

Judge Jay Burnett

The Award takes the form of a glass gavel, symbolizing the fragility and perfection of true justice.  It is named after its first recipient, former Harris County District Judge Jay Burnett, who had the grit to demand a new trial for Calvin Burdine, whose lawyer had slept through parts of his capital murder trial.

“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
--John Wayne




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