Ex-Judge Found Guilty of Bias After Changing Baby's 'Messiah' Name

A former Tenn. judge who previously ordered a mother to change her son's name from Messiah to Martin has been found guilty of five counts of bias.

On Monday, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct Disciplinary Counsel censured former judge Lu Anne Ballew, saying she disobeyed her obligations of impartiality when she ordered a mother to change her son's name from Messiah to Martin in 2013. The state's board of judicial conduct said censuring Ballew was the harshest form of punishment they could administer, as the judge already lost her job over the incident that took place in May last year.

According to WBIR-TV, a "public censure" means that Balew's violation of conduct will be put on record, and she may be required to "follow a specified course of corrective action." The news outlet adds that a censure is considered to be a stronger punishment than a public reprimand.

In 2013, parents Jalessa Martin and Jawaan McCullough appeared before Ballew, a child support magistrate, to determine what should be the last name of their 7-month old son, named Messiah Martin at birth. To the couple's surprise, Ballew not only decided on the child's last name, but also ruled that his first name should be changed from "Messiah" to "Martin." According to WBIR-TV, Ballew said at the time that "the word 'messiah' is a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ."

Ballew added that the boy's name should be changed so he may avoid conflict with his peers as he grows older. "It could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is."

Ballew's ruling was later reversed, and the magistrate was dismissed from her job under Tennessee's fourth judicial district.

The disciplinary board ruled that Ballew had violated several measures in her code of conduct, including ruling with impartiality, performing duties without bias, and abstaining from speaking to the media on pending cases. Ballew had provided an interview to a local news outlet after changing the baby's name.

As The Associated Press reports, lawyers for Ballew argued that the magistrate was not imposing her religious beliefs when she made her ruling, but was rather watching out for the child's well-being, suggesting that the child could face adversity in later years by those who oppose the name. "A child's only protection for a detrimental name lies with the state," Ballew's attorneys said.

Tim Discenza, disciplinary counsel for the board of conduct, said Monday that Ballew made her ruling for "personal gain or a satisfaction."

"A judge is required to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence and the independence, the integrity and impartiality in the judiciary," Discenza said.

Ballew will still be able to keep her law license despite Monday's ruling.