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Judge reassigned for allegedly calling black woman juror 'Aunt Jemima'

Posted at 4:29 PM, Feb 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-08 18:29:47-05

A Pennsylvania judge has been temporarily removed from the bench after a conversation with two attorneys allegedly turned into a racist tirade about the "terrible decision" of putting "Aunt Jemima" on a jury.

That jury in Allegheny County acquitted an accused drug dealer on Jan. 24 and allegedly set Common Pleas Judge Mark Tranquilli on a rant with Assistant District Attorney Thaddeus Dutkowski and defense attorney John Otte.

Once the verdict was read, Tranquilli allegedly tossed the verdict sheet and "held a private question-and-answer session with the members of the jury," according to a complaint filed by Otte on Jan. 25.

Afterwards, the attorneys were told to wait almost 30 minutes to speak to Tranquilli in his chambers, where the judge expressed "dissatisfaction with the jury," Otte wrote.

Tranquilli allegedly berated Dutkowski for making a "terrible decision by allowing 'Aunt Jemima' on the jury," the complaint read.

The judge was referring to Juror No. 4 -- a young black woman who "had worn a hair wrap" over her hair throughout the trial, according to the complaint.

Tranquilli allegedly told the prosecutor that it was obvious that he was going to lose the case from the moment "Aunt Jemima" was picked because "her 'baby daddy' probably sells heroin and that her presumed bias in favor of heroin dealers had caused or contributed to the not guilty verdict," Otte wrote.

While "Aunt Jemima" is known as a pancake-mix brand, the logo -- a black woman with a scarf covering her hair and grinning -- has its historical origins in the depiction of black women in subservient roles as nannies or housekeepers for whites, and the phrase is considered a derogatory and offensive slur.

Otte and Dutkowski filed separate complaints with the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania (JCBP).

On Thursday, the newly appointed President of the Common Pleas Court Judge Kim Berkeley Clark temporarily resigned Tranquilli off the bench and to administrative duties, "effective immediately," according to the court filing. "Judge Tranquilli shall not preside over any cases during this assignment."

Clark is the county's first African American to lead the judicial court.

The Allegheny County Bar Association (ACBA) President Lori McMaster issued a statement on Thursday demanding a complete investigation by the JCBP. "We have a duty to our members, our clients, and the African American and broader communities at large, to continue to take action to eliminate implicit and explicit racial bias in our legal system," said McMaster, in part.

The ACBA's Homer S. Brown Division issued a statement on Friday condemning any "demeaning, racist, or discriminatory" comments from an elected or appointed judges.

"African Americans and all people of color must have every confidence that they will be treated impartially and with the utmost respect during encounters with our judicial system, without exception," according to the statement. "Our system of justice deserves nothing less."

A spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office declined to comment on the matter.

Request for further comment from the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania was not received.

Otte declined to comment on making the complaint.

An online petition was launched calling for Tranquilli to be disbarred and removed as a judge. As of Friday afternoon, almost 800 of the 1,000 signatures requested were given.

Tranquilli was elected in November 2013.

Calls made to Judge Tranquilli's office were not returned.