OXFORD – Attorney Danny Lampley shakes his head, somewhat embarrassed to recall how he came to know the inside of the Lee County Jail better than he’d ever intended.
He also wonders how his courtroom punishment for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance will affect his life and continuously struggling legal career.
On Oct. 6, Judge Talmadge Littlejohn of New Albany began his chancery court proceeding by asking everyone to rise and join him in the pledge. Lampley stood but didn’t say the words.
A few weeks earlier, the same judge had admonished Lampley for his silence. But the second time, in the Lee County Justice Center, it earned him a contempt of court charge and about four hours behind bars.
News of the incident went worldwide. Scores of telephone calls and Internet comments, from the public and the media, caught the soft-spoken attorney like a deer in the headlights.
“It’s going to take me a couple of days to wrap my mind around this,” he said the day after his jailing and the sudden attention. “It started so early. It’s been hard to get something to eat.”
Lampley, 49, is a quiet, bespectacled, lanky man with close-cropped hair.
He admits that his educational and professional careers are non-traditional, and that his skills in the business side of operating a legal practice are lacking.
The German-born child of a U.S. serviceman, Lampley moved a lot and had attended eight different schools by the time he’d reached the eighth grade.
He says he finally found life stability when his parents moved to Saltillo to try their hands at the furniture business. In north Lee County, Lampley found a home and graduated from Saltillo High.
Then, he said, he “tried” Itawamba Community College several times before becoming determined to stay in school and make something of himself.
After ICC, he worked his way through the University of Mississippi, where he earned his undergraduate degree in political science and his law degree.
“I decided to go to law school,” he recalled last week, “because I thought it would be useful.”
“It can be pretty powerful when you know what those papers say,” he noted about legal documents, which bring clients to him for help.
Oxford attorney Thomas Freeland IV says he hired Lampley to clerk for him because of what Freeland describes as “the last manual typewriter resume I ever got.”
“It wasn’t like any resume I’d ever seen,” he recalls. “It was very straightforward … from a blue-collar background … not like most law school students.”
Lampley took a winding and often difficult from there to here.
For four years, he found steady work and steady pay as an attorney for North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, handling civil cases for clients who couldn’t afford a private lawyer.
Then he decided to go out on his own. He hung his office shingle in Tupelo, not thinking too much that his client base didn’t have any more money now than before.
The prayer case
Just as he thought things were beginning to pick up, he got a call “about a woman in the Pontotoc Schools.” That was 1995.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Lampley said.
He became part of a legal team to press the case of Lisa Herdahl, who had sued the Pontotoc County School District over the constitutionality of public prayer in public schools.
“They needed somebody on the ground,” he said.
Lampley worked with the ACLU and People for the American Way on that case, which stirred up a regional hornet’s nest and acrimony for anybody siding with Herdahl.
But she won the case and established precedent about what schools can and cannot do as far as public prayer as a sanctioned part of the school day is concerned.
Lampley said he was still trying to build his practice, and his involvement with the prayer case brought a lot of calls from parents, who were having troubles within their own school districts over their children’s discipline or their need for special services.
“These were people the school officials didn’t have to answer to,” he said.
“These were people, they don’t have any money, so officials know they can ignore their issues.”
But these clients weren’t helping Lampley pay his bills, so he closed his Tupelo office and regrouped his practice out of his home in rural southwest Lafayette County.
“These past 20 years, they’ve been odd and unlucrative,” he reflects. “It has something to do with my personal idiosyncrasies.
“That’s OK, I’m horrible with business. I’m bad not to send people bills.”
He says it’s also been quite frustrating.
“I don’t like it,” he noted, saying it’s forced him to limit the kinds of cases he handles to those that won’t take much upfront money.
His most recent experience with Judge Littlejohn has added to the pressure he feels about his future.
“I am concerned,” he says. “I just don’t know how much trouble you can get into when you make enough people mad at you.”
Lampley says that while he’s received scores of calls and Internet contacts in support of his right not to say the pledge, he admits he’s also heard sharply critical phone messages.
How will other judges, potential clients react to him now, he wonders?
Perhaps one bit of good news for Lampley and his clients is that they won’t appear before Littlejohn again. The judge recently ordered his own personal recusal, or withdrawal, from any case involving Lampley.
Freeland, who is Lampley’s lawyer in this matter, says Littlejohn’s contempt order is still in effect and Lampley isn’t sure if he’ll wind up in jail again, since he has no intention of complying with the judge’s order to repeat the pledge.
“No lawyer likes to have a contempt order against him,” Freeland said. “He stood and he showed respect for the court that day, there’s no question about that.”
It’s not a matter of not showing respect for the court, Freeland added.
Lampley admits he hasn’t filed any kind of complaint about Littlejohn, although it’s general knowledge that several formal complaints are lodged about him with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance.
If MCJP members deem a judge’s behavior merits discipline or sanctions, they ask the Mississippi Supreme Court to act.
In the meantime, Lampley says he’s worried about his professional struggles and about the people of little financial means who have civil legal problems.
“People who don’t have money get screwed,” he says.
Curiously, Lampley opposes a recent state Supreme Court proposal to require all the state’s attorneys to donate 20 hours of free legal help a year or pay a $500 fine.
“Lawyers trying to make a living resent being told what to do,” he said.
Or, in Lampley’s case, being told what to say.
He said it never occurred to him that reciting the pledge should be a “mandatory thing.” Such action feels “like social coercion,” he noted. “I don’t like to be pushed.” But he declined to say whether he had recited the pledge under other conditions.
He laughed when he described himself as “an ornery child” from a family of ornery, stubborn people. But despite the laughter, he wasn’t about his refusal to say the pledge.
“I’m an American – I don’t have to do that,” he said.
In a 1944 school case, the U.S. Supreme Court said pretty much the same thing.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or email@example.com.
PATSY BRUMFIELD / NEMS Daily Journal