On July 7, 1931, in a courtroom in the South Chicago neighborhood, a 38-year-old municipal court judge sparked an international incident when he peremptorily ordered the acting Mexican consul to spend six months in jail for talking back to him.
“I don’t see why people bow and scrape to these consuls and ambassadors,” Judge Thomas A. Green said to a Tribune reporter. “They’ve got to be put in their place.”
“Get him to shut up”
According to Green, the incident began when the consul, Adolfo Dominguez, in the courtroom on another matter, listened to the judge describe Mexican vagrants before him as “idlers” and sentence them to a year in jail. In response, Dominguez approached the bench.
“He objected to this sentence, and I told him to run along and mind his own business,” Green later explained.
“I couldn’t get him to shut up so I threatened to send him to jail. He said I couldn’t do that because he was a representative of the Mexican government and then he dared me to jail him. So, I did.”
“Throw you in the can!”
Attorney T. Russell Baker who had come to the courtroom with Dominguez gave a different account.
As soon as Green was told that the consul was present, Baker said, the judge
“leaped to his feet and began an amazing and incoherent tirade in which he said the consul was no good…Senor Dominguez attempted to remonstrate but he was out-yelled, the judge shouting, ‘Shut up or I’ll throw you in the can!’ ”
Green’s jailing of the consul caused immediate international repercussions and, according to historian Michael Innis-Jimenez, remains a painful aspect of the Mexican-American communal memory in South Chicago today.
“Green’s summary harassment of Mexicans from behind the judicial bench instilled fear,” writes Innis-Jimenez in “Steel Barrio,” his 2103 examination of Mexican migration to South Chicago, “and was, in their eyes, but one example of an institutional bias against the Mexican community by officials and power-brokers. As the Depression worsened, so did the attacks on Mexicans.”
Mexican-American relations were already frayed at the time. Just a month earlier, on June 8, two Mexican college students, driving home, including the cousin of Mexican President Pascual Ortiz Rubio, were fatally shot by deputy sheriffs in Oklahoma.
So, it wasn’t surprising that, within hours of Green’s action, diplomatic wheels were spinning madly. Manuel C. Telles, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S., filed a protest with the State Department, seeking an immediate investigation, and Acting Secretary of State William R. Castle Jr. asked Illinois Gov. Louis L. Emmerson to investigate the matter as soon as possible.
Dominguez, as it turned out, only spent four hours in jail before being freed on bail by Criminal Court Judge Joseph Burke.
Nonetheless, Green, a former U.S. Marine who had served in World War I, was adamant the next day that he was right and he would see the consul soon back behind bars. “Not even President Hoover could make me change my mind about that contempt citation,” he told a Tribune reporter. And, as to whether he’d apologize to Dominguez — well, Green just laughed.
It was Dominguez, though, who had the last laugh.
After what must have been an awkward meeting on July 9 with his boss, Chief Justice John J. Sonsteby of the Municipal Court, Green issued a statement that he was expunging the contempt order “to remove any possible belief that my act was any indication of my feeling toward Mexico or the Mexican people or to create any unfriendly relations between the two countries.”
Not an apology
Green made it clear, though, that he was acting at the request of Sonsteby and Emmerson, and, in an interview, he said, “I still believe I’m right in my action,” adding that his statement did not represent an apology.
An apology did come, however, the next day — not from Green, but from Acting Secretary of State Castle in an official diplomatic communique to the Mexican government.
Dominguez, Innis-Jimenez writes, went on to an exemplary career as the Mexican consul in Houston, Dallas, Sacramento and Los Angeles.
Green remained a judge until 1942 when he returned to private practice as a lawyer. He died in 1948 at the age of 55.
Patrick T. Reardon
This article initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 12.7.16.