City Hall: Committee Hears Report on Racism Within First Judicial District

With racial tensions at the forefront of national attention this year, Philadelphia’s courts are dealing with accusations of discrimination within their own halls.

The City Council Committee on Legislative Oversight held a public hearing on Dec. 7\ to hear testimony around findings of racism, nepotism, and general mistrust within the First Judicial District (FJD), as recently revealed in a report by the Center for Urban and Racial Equity (CURE). 

The organization was asked by the FJD to conduct an inquiry into equity among court employees and delivered its findings to court judges in 2019. 

Dr. Judy Lubin, president of CURE, spoke about the report, which found most employees perceived leaders at FJD as “only demonstrating a mouthed form of commitment to equity.” 

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson sponsored the hearing and expressed regret that judges and representatives from the FJD did not attend.

“It’s really a sad missed opportunity for the leadership team over at FJD to not participate in this hearing,” Johnson said. “I think for the president judge to not personally participate, and to not show up or not even send a representative, is very glaring as it relates to her attitude — her team’s attitude — as it relates to the issue of race and institutional racism in the First Judicial District.”  

The lack of judges’ attention to matters of structural racism was a persistent theme throughout the hearing. 

“And really, it’s unacceptable to the African American people here in the city of Philadelphia,” Johnson said.

Incidents of racial discrimination and apparent nepotism were among the biggest issues identified in the report, which found female judges of color were more likely to rate the FJD’s diversity and equity much lower to that of White male and female judges, as well as male judges of color. Also, nearly 20% of FJD staff surveyed for the report said they felt uncomfortable on the job due to discrimination.

The report also found an evident power imbalance between judges and staff members created a culture of general mistrust where staff did not feel they had adequate means to address workplace discrimination in the court.

CURE suggested hiring a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, but when the time came to hire, according to Lubin, the FJD said there was not enough funding to create the position. 

Lubin also testified that FJD officials were not always helpful as her team researched the report. For instance, she requested forms and data related to discrimination complaints but never received those materials. Her suggestion to perform a full salary and compensation report in order to identify disparities among pay, ranking, and promotions between employees of different genders was not acknowledged by FJD officials, Lubin said.

“After we delivered the report, we had conversations with both Judge Fox and Judge Allen,” she said. “At the time, they had agreed that they would share the report or at least an executive summary of the report.” 

Judges held the report for a year, though, before releasing it over the summer. 

The silence of the Philadelphia court officials around the report outraged both members of the community and other judges. Judge Karen Simmons of the Philadelphia Municipal Court said the racial discrimination she has witnessed in the court system is the kind of injustice citizens have spent past year protesting about. 

“While America is purportedly attempting to have yet another reckoning with its long-standing racial and inequalities towards Black Americans, court systems remain mired in the disease of racism,” she said. “Our institutions remain affected by the remneats of slavery, Jim Crow laws that were never dismantled, and racist court decisions that were never disavowed.” 

Her colleagues inattention to race was striking, Simmons said. 

“Through it all, I must say, everyone here remained, and still is to this day, silent,” she said. 

To move forward, Lubin suggested the FJD adopt the extensive diversity, equity, and inclusion plans she presented to both Fox and Allen. 

Most importantly, she said, the community should get involved.

“I would encourage members of the community to think of ways in which they can hold FJD accountable,” Lubin said.

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