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Proposed Mission Statement Citing Systemic Racism Has Allegheny County Judges Up In Arms

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- There is disorder in the court in Allegheny County.

This all stems from a mission statement proposed by the president judge citing "systemic racism" in the court system, and many long-time judges are having none of it.

Sources say a closed-door meeting between President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark and the judges erupted in protest last Friday over the final draft of the mission statement acknowledging "systemic racism" in the courts, with several judges taking it as a personal affront.

"They're completely offended because it's bull. It's nonsense," attorney Bill Difenderfer said.

The judges took special exception to a section of the statement obtained by KDKA that reads: "We are committed to being fair and consistent, while paying attention to issues of bias (both implicit and explicit), and systemic racism that currently exists in the justice system."

proposed Mission statement court
(Photo Credit: KDKA)

KDKA spoke on background with several judges who attended the meeting. They said they found the inference their decisions are tainted by racial prejudice to be offensive and will not sign off on the statement. Difenderfer, who spoke with several as well, said he's seen no hint of racism from judges in more than three decades of defending clients before them.

"To just have the bold allegation that there is racism, number one, is acknowledging a falsehood. Other than Tranquilli, who we bounced out of here, I want an example," he said

Judge Mark Tranquilli resigned from the bench under fire last year after KDKA first reported he referred to a Black woman juror as "Aunt Jemima" and referenced another's "baby daddy."

Judge Clark declined KDKA's request for an interview, but months ago she wrote on the court website that she empaneled a committee of citizens and frontline courthouse workers to draft the mission statement after this and concerns about equal justice arising over the death of George Floyd.

Frank Walker, president of the Pittsburgh Black Lawyers Alliance, said the judges are overreacting to a statement seeking to assure the public of fairness — regardless of race.

KDKA's analysis of several years of sentencing data in the Allegheny County courts showed judges were decidedly more lenient on African American defendants than white — with African American defendants getting a far greater percentage of negotiated pleas below or far below the prescribed sentencing range.

But Walker said racial bias is ingrained throughout the criminal justice system.

"I believe it is systemically racist, yes. And we have to take efforts to make sure everyone who comes in the court receives equal justice under the law," Walker said.

The meeting last Friday ended without a resolution. Judge Clark has called for another meeting in December to try to iron out the differences and come up with a mission statement everyone can sign off on.

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