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July 27, 2014

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Ex-magistrate censured in Messiah name change case

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A former Tennessee magistrate who changed a baby's first name from Messiah to Martin was censured Monday.

Lu Ann Ballew said at the time that Messiah was a title held only by Jesus Christ. Ballew's attorneys have argued that she was acting in the child's best interest because having the name Messiah could make his life difficult.

Board of Judicial Conduct Disciplinary Counsel Tim Discenza said in a phone interview that a panel of the board voted unanimously in Dandridge for a public censure. Discenza said public censure is the probably most serious sanction the board could take against Ballew, given that she already lost her position as a magistrate.

The decision for which Ballew was censured came in August, when Jalessa Martin and Jawaan McCullough appeared before Ballew at a child support hearing in Newport about their 7-month-old son Messiah Martin. As part of the hearing, the father requested the baby's last name be changed to McCullough.

Ballew surprised both parents by ordering that the baby's name change to Martin McCullough. Ballew's decision was overturned in chancery court a month later, and both parents agreed to name the baby Messiah McCullough.

Ballew spoke to a local television station after she changed Messiah's name, saying, "The word 'messiah' is a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ."

Her decision quickly made international news, prompting the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation to file a complaint with the Board of Judicial Conduct

As a child support magistrate, Ballew served at the pleasure of the chief judge of Tennessee's fourth judicial district. He replaced her last month, but Ballew still had to face the disciplinary hearing.

In a pretrial statement filed ahead of Monday's hearing, Discenza argued that Ballew violated several sections of the judicial code of conduct. One requires judges to rule with impartiality and fairness. Another requires them to perform their duties without bias or prejudice. Judges also are prohibited from making statements about pending cases.

Ballew's attorneys argued in a response that the magistrate was not trying to push her religious views onto the parents. Instead, she was concerned that the name Messiah would cause problems for the child in the heavily Christian community where he was being raised.

"A child's only protection for a detrimental name lies with the state," Ballew's attorneys wrote. Attorney Brent Laman could not be reached for comment after the censure decision.

Ballew's attorneys also defended her statements to the media, saying they were essentially just a repetition of what she wrote in her order.

Discenza said Ballew has a right to appeal the censure to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

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