December 21, 2018
Last week, racial tensions were stoked at Philadelphia’s Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice when word broke of a racist message making its way to Municipal Court Judge Karen Yvette Simmons via interdepartmental envelope.
According to a local attorney who held a protest outside the building in the aftermath, the letter was left in a “private judicial area” of the building as Simmons was seeking election as president judge.
“There will never be a Black b**** running our court. You won’t be President Judge! Keep MC Court Great!” the letter read, according to attorney Michael Coard, who led a protest outside the CJC on Thursday afternoon.
Speaking with PhillyVoice on Friday, Simmons said she is disturbed that such a letter, which has prompted an investigation by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, surfaced at her workplace.
"It caught me so off-guard that someone would be so hateful, so bold, to put that note in my robing room at a time when I was on the bench," she said, noting that she would've been the first African American elected to hold the position. "It hit me right in the gut. It as so far off from anything I could've imagined. It's just scary."
In a letter addressed to Police Commissioner Richard Ross, Sheriff Jewel Williams and First District Attorney Robert Listenbee, Coard labeled the correspondence “shockingly racist and misogynistic.”
He posted an 18-minute video of Thursday's rally on Facebook.
“I’m not casting aspersions on any judge, I’m not casting aspersions on any judicial clerk, but this letter was left in an envelope in a private area. It was in an area where only judges have access,” he said, questioning how the note ended up "in a private area accessible to judges and law clerks.”
Coard noted that the judge received 24/7 protection in the wake of the letter, which was viewed as a threat. Simmons said the protection has ended and that "I didn't in any way feel unsafe" but officials interpreted things differently.
“We expect racism against young black men as defendants in a courthouse, but when you get that type of racism and misogyny against a judge in that courthouse, something has to be done,” Coard said. “We want the official court staff here … to organize a sensitivity training session which will require every judge and clerk to go through a full-day seminar regarding racism and misogyny.”
Said Rochelle Bilal, the president of the Guardian Civic League and candidate for sheriff, “We want this investigated as a hate crime and we say ‘hell no’ to whoever did it.”
Two days after the letter was discovered, Simmons lost the internal president-judge election overseeing the 25-judge municipal court. On December 13, she received three votes while Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden got five votes and ultimate winner Municipal Court Judge Pat Dugan got 18 votes.
Those tallies came from a judicial-system insider who said two camps have formed within the CJC about the incident; one holds that there’s a “racist staff member” working inside while the other questions whether it was a "Hail Mary election" ploy.
Simmons said she was "thankful I hadn't heard that. That's the ugly part of this all. I do know that people are not happy that this has been made public, though."
"I didn't realize it would hurt like it has, but whoever did this, I could be seeing them everyday since it has to be an employee," she continued. "If they're doing this to me, the vast majority of people coming into the building are black and brown, so what is that person thinking about them?"
Both the Philadelphia courts system and District Attorney's Office, confirmed the investigation is ongoing.
"The Court is fully cooperating with this investigation by law enforcement into discovering the individual or individuals behind the egregious racist and hateful comments directed toward one of our Judges," said Gabriel Roberts, courts spokesperson. "The offensive and intolerable nature of this document is a violation of everything this Court promotes and stands for and it will not be tolerated.
"The Court will take all appropriate action upon the conclusion of this investigation."
Ben Waxman, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, said "we are investigating. No further comment at this time."
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