ACLU enlists in man's court fight over hat

Matthew Graham of Egg Harbor Township says he wears his black hat for religious reasons.
Matthew Graham of Egg Harbor Township says he wears his black hat for religious reasons.
Posted: January 17, 2014

TRENTON An Egg Harbor City man who insisted on keeping his hat on in court has found himself at the center of a legal skirmish some hope will provide a compelling reminder that judges must adequately accommodate the poor.

But the American Civil Liberties Union filing that could prompt such a message has little to do with Matthew Graham's black headpiece.

The organization's New Jersey chapter submitted a brief this week to a state appellate court, arguing that a judge erred in denying certain fee waivers that would permit Graham to appeal a contempt-of-court conviction.

Graham, 40, rejected court orders to remove his hat, citing personal religious beliefs, during an Oct. 2 Municipal Court hearing on a disorderly conduct charge.

The charge was dismissed, but Graham was found in contempt and ordered to pay a $50 fine.

Unemployed and living with his mother, Graham intended to appeal, requesting that transcript and filing fees be waived.

When the court denied the waivers, Graham responded with a handwritten letter, asking how he could afford the $75 filing fee when "I dont even have 75 cents."

Superior Court Judge Michael Donio retorted in an Oct. 29 memo to Graham that refusing to remove the hat should not "entitle you to a free lawyer or a free transcript," according to the court filing.

"You made a conscious decision in open court to defy a court order by not taking off your hat like everyone else does," the letter continued.

In a subsequent, memorialized order, Donio reasoned: "The court does not believe the defendant is subject to sentence of consequence which would result in a deprivation of liberty" even if found guilty of contempt on appeal.

But ACLU attorney Alexander Shalom contends that the denial defied long-established access to such legal avenues regardless of ability to pay.

The ACLU cites Griffin v. Illinois, a 1956 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot deny an appeal because of inability to pay court costs.

Donio's chambers declined to comment, citing the pending legal matter.

Graham, who said he has aspirations of becoming a management consultant, said he last worked in the summer at a temporary gig erecting bleachers in Wildwood. Several years ago, he worked at a McDonald's but was dismissed.

He collects food stamps and claims he has more than $10,000 in student loan debt after attending the University of the Sciences to study biology between 1992 and 1993.

"Should I be sleeping in a box?" Graham asked of the requirements to qualify for indigent status.

It's unclear whether Graham's appeal of the contempt conviction would succeed. Shalom said the ACLU would consider representing Graham based on the contents of the transcripts.

Graham says he feels a need to cover his head based on readings in the Old Testament, such as Ezekiel 44:18.

Todd Mangum, academic dean at the Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, said such writings refer to Jewish priests.

Mangum, who acknowledged he was "predisposed to wanting to accommodate religious convictions," suggested that a small minority of Orthodox Christians could in theory have assumed such a belief.

"It's a small strand, if it's a strand," he said.

"I wouldn't have known it was religious clothing," Mangum said after seeing a photo of Graham in his hat.

Shalom said the ACLU's action was about ensuring that impoverished residents are not denied due process in court.

"The law is very clear," Shalom said. "What hopefully this case will do is send a strong reminder to judges throughout the state that we mean it."



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