Systemic racism still festering inside city’s courts, Black judges say during legislative hearing

(Patrick Feller/Flickr)

By Michael D’Onofrio

Legislators unloaded on the leaders of the city’s court system Monday for their absence from a hearing on a bombshell report that detailed a “troubling pattern of racial resentment” and nepotism in the courts.

Court of Common Pleas President Judge Idee C. Fox drew the ire of legislators for her refusal to testify during the legislative hearing on the findings of the report from the Center for Urban and Racial Equity (CURE).

Richard McSorley, a court administrative officer in the First Judicial District, the city’s court system, was originally scheduled to testify in her stead as of Friday. But he later declined and sent a letter in lieu of his appearance.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson called Fox’s absence “unacceptable” and indicative of court leadership’s disregard of the institutional racism and other issues that were detailed in the report.

“Her absence and a representative’s absence exemplifies that Black judges don’t matter” and that “those Black staff members don’t matter,” Johnson said.

Fox also is the chairwoman of the Administrative Governing Board of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, which is made up of judges tasked with overseeing court management.

At-large Councilman Derek Green questioned FJD leadership’s commitment to address the issues raised in the report. Green raised the specter that the court system’s budget could be affected by the inaction of its leadership.

“I find it baffling that they would not be here to testify or at least listen to the issues that have been raised and have not been addressed,” Green said.

The CURE report, which was released in July, surveyed hundreds of staff, judges and those in leadership positions. The court’s governing board commissioned CURE to complete the report.

The report found that women of color, including female judges, were among those most negatively affected by the courts’ culture. Among several other issues, the report found that Black staff members were not being promoted and had to fight for menial increases to salary.

Among some white staff and judges, the report found a “troubling pattern of racial resentment,” which was “often expressed as a disbelief that institutional and structural racism exists and belief that reverse racism is as significant as racism against people of color.”

Judy Lubin, founder and president of CURE, told legislators that the report included several recommendations, including providing additional training to all employees and the hiring of a diversity, inclusion and equity officer.

But several meetings with Fox and other high-level court officials to discuss implementing those recommendations went nowhere, in part due to budget constraints, Lubin said.

FJD officials broke off all contact with CURE in September 2019 as both sides were hashing out how to put reforms in place, Lubin said. FJD officials confirmed the termination of CURE’s contract in February 2020 for budget reasons.

In his letter to members of City Council, McSorley, the district court administrator, said the novel coronavirus pandemic and a 2019 hack of the courts’ computer system slowed the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

McSorley said court employees have received training covering non-discrimination and equal employment opportunities since FJD received the report. Judges will receive similar training “in the near future.”

Judicial and administrative leaders also took part in an implicit-bias training in October, McSorley said.

A pair of judges said the issues revealed in the CURE report were persisting and festering.

Common Pleas Court Judges Roxanne Covington said Black judges like her continue to feel unwelcome, unsafe and targeted.

Covington blasted FJD leadership for not addressing the racism and other issues, which she said was “sending a clear and convincing message that this type of behavior is not only acceptable but welcome and supported and condoned by our court system.”

“They are aware of it and they are doing nothing about it,” Covington said, referring to FJD leadership.

Covington said she received a death threat since the CURE report was released in July. FJD officials dragged their feet for a week before providing her additional security, while white judges appeared to be receiving ongoing extra protection, she said.

Municipal Court Judge Karen Simmons, who was the target of a racist and sexist attack in the form of a letter left in her robing room in 2018, said the systemic racism in the city’s courts continues to negatively impact residents and court employees.

Simmons warned that many judges did not want to testify publicly because they feared reprisals.

“The issue of race, anti-racism, discrimination and equity in our courts demands an urgent response and plan that should be addressed immediately and communicated to the whole court system and throughout our citizens of Philadelphia,” Simmons said.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.