Alleged ‘Aunt Jemima’ comment by judge has Black community fuming

by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer

One by one, the list of those publicly denouncing the alleged comments made by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Mark Tranquilli is growing.

And, if proven true that Judge Tranquilli referred to a young Black female juror as “Aunt Jemima” and presumed that her “baby daddy probably sells heroin,” the newly-formed group titled The Pittsburgh Black Lawyers wants the judge removed from office following a thorough investigation by the state’s Judicial Conduct Board.

For now, Judge Tranquilli is assigned to perform administrative tasks only, and not to preside over any court cases, an order made and signed by President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark on Feb. 6. The order came two days after Judge Clark originally assigned Judge Tranquilli to summary appeals following the results of a written complaint made to the Judicial Conduct Board by defense attorney Joe Otte.

In Otte’s complaint, Otte detailed how Judge Tranquilli, in his chambers after a suspect was found not guilty in a drug case, verbally expressed his displeasure with the verdict and told the prosecutor, Ted Dutkowski, that he made a terrible choice in allowing “Aunt Jemima”  (Juror #4) on the jury.

Also according to the complaint, obtained first by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the judge then said the juror’s “presumed bias in favor of heroin dealers had caused or contributed to the not guilty verdict.”

“The allegation that Judge Tranquilli suggested that Assistant District Attorney Ted Dutkowski should have exercised a peremptory strike to deny Juror #4, an African American woman, the right to sit in judgment as a juror in this case is worse than any crime for which the accused was standing trial,” a statement by The Pittsburgh Black Lawyers read. “Judge Tranquilli’s alleged comments and behavior unearth our worst inclinations and casts a dark cloud over the legacies of African American judges like the Honorable Homer S. Brown, Thomas Harper, Henry R. Smith, Walter Little and many of our White brothers and sisters who stood with them to ensure fairness and equity for all in the hallowed halls of our state courts in Allegheny County.”

The Pittsburgh Black Lawyers’ statement continued: “Judge Tranquilli’s alleged comments reflect a hardness of heart that causes one to question his past conduct as a prosecutor. Further, if proven true, evidences a blatant disregard for human decency and integrity in exchange for procuring a conviction at all costs.”

Prior to The Pittsburgh Black Lawyers’ Feb. 14 statement, organizations such as the Pittsburgh NAACP, the Black Political Empowerment Project and the Allegheny County Bar Association also denounced Judge Tranqulli’s alleged comments from mid-January.

“There can be no fair administration of justice, when judges who are to be held to the highest of ethical standards display racist views,” the Pittsburgh NAACP branch said in a Feb. 7 statement. “That those views were on full display while he was engaging in court business makes them all the more despicable. There also can be no fair administration of justice when citizens serving as jurors are denigrated based on the color of their skin.”

The local NAACP’s statement continued: “These comments were not made in a vacuum, they reflect racist ideas and biases that undoubtedly influenced the case in question, and every other case he has presided over. Almost as disturbing, is Tranquilli’s long career as an assistant district attorney, where he was in a position to abuse power, promote bigoted views and discriminate against African Americans as a ‘tough on crime’ prosecutor. This is the type of systemic and structural racism that makes our region one of the worst places for African Americans to live.”

Members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus weighed in on the matter; specifically, those Black legislators close to home. State Rep. Ed Gainey said in a statement that “our society is based on the belief that justice is blind— that regardless of race, color or creed, every man and woman will be treated and judged the same. And so, when we hear allegations like this, it doesn’t just reflect poorly on one judge, or one courtroom, but on the entire justice system. This is a great example as to why Black and brown people have fear and reservations about our criminal justice system. How can people of color believe they will get a fair chance in court when we hear about an incident like this? How can we be asked to trust a system in which these remarks exhibit an explicit bias? If justice is not blind, then it cannot be fair, and it is no justice at all.”

State Rep. Summer Lee said in a statement that “when we read about or see incidents like this, we must pause and ask ourselves what message this sends to our community. To me, that message is sadly clear: Justice is neither blind nor deaf in Allegheny County. In a system in which Black and brown people are disproportionally represented, this incident shows that systemic bias goes beyond incarceration statistics but is sitting on the very bench that controls the courtroom. How can we have faith in a system that has no faith in us, or that is unwilling or unable to see beyond stereotypes to see us for who we are?”

 

(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: BRYAN C. BRANTLEY AND NICOLA HENRY-TAYLOR are two members of The Pittsburgh Black Lawyers, an organization calling for a thorough investigation of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Mark Tranquilli.)

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