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A study found Philly courts rife with nepotism and racial tensions. Judges waited a year to release it.

The report concluded that women of color, in particular, including female judges, were experiencing bias and exclusion – including one incident in which a racist and sexist note was sent to a Black Municipal Court judge. Several white judges and staff reported concerns about "reverse racism."

A pedestrian enters the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice in Center City in October 2019.
A pedestrian enters the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice in Center City in October 2019.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia court system is mired in an internal “culture of nepotism, mistrust and racial tension” and skepticism among judges and staff that workplace discrimination concerns will be taken seriously, according to an assessment by outside consultants obtained Thursday by The Inquirer.

The report, which drew upon survey responses and focus groups last year composed of a sampling of the First Judicial District’s more than 2,500 employees, concluded that while court workers generally reported feeling respected and that they worked in a culturally diverse environment, serious problems existed.

For instance, women of color, including judges, were experiencing bias and exclusion in the court system, the assessment’s authors found — including one incident in which a racist and sexist note was sent to the chambers of a Black Municipal Court judge through interoffice mail.

The authors also flagged what they described as a troubling belief among several white judges and staff that institutional and structural racism were not significant factors in modern society, while others voiced concerns that “reverse racism” was as important as discrimination against people of color.

“Black coalitions seem to now rule,” one white judge quoted in the report said in a focus group meeting. Another white employee responded: “In my life experience, he who cries ‘racism’ is usually steeped in racism.”

The tensions highlighted by the study — conducted by the Washington-based Center for Urban and Racial Equality (CURE) at the request of court leadership — mirror challenging conversations about race, equity, and implicit bias that have erupted in workplaces across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the national reckoning with racial injustice it has provoked.

But judges and outside observers interviewed Thursday by The Inquirer said those internal tensions take on greater importance when they happen in a system that is also struggling to confront systemic bias in the justice it metes out in thousands of civil and criminal cases each year.

“This is an institution that is making decisions about thousands of people’s lives every day,” said City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who added that he is considering holding Council hearings in the fall on issues raised by the study. “If we don’t have a level of empathy and compassion around issues of race and equality inside the institution, then surely that trickles to the outside.”

Despite the report’s calls for transparency and accountability, its findings were not released until a year after the study’s authors delivered it to the First Judicial District’s Administrative Governing Board, a panel of judges that oversees court management.

CURE explicitly recommended last summer the report be shared with staff and the public. The board voted at the time not to release the document, according to two sources familiar with the matter, who were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Earlier this week, 14 city councilmembers signed a letter urging Common Pleas President Judge Idee C. Fox to reconsider. The findings were distributed to court employees Thursday along with a message from the governing board’s members.

“Recent events have raised legitimate questions about our awareness and sensitivities to the differing realities of our employees and court users,” it read. “We must acknowledge and recognize the systemic problems within our courts.”

Court spokesperson Martin O’Rourke said there “was no excuse” for the belated dissemination of the findings but did not confirm whether the governing board had specifically chosen not to release them. He noted that in the last year the courts had dealt with a computer virus that shut down the court’s systems for weeks as well as the coronavirus pandemic and the protests that gripped the city and forced office closures last month.

The most overt example of discriminatory behavior highlighted by the study involved an anonymous, racist message that was sent to Judge Karen Yvette Simmons’ chambers while she was running in 2018 to become president judge of the Municipal Court.

“There Will Never Be a Black [expletive] Running Our Court. You Won’t be President Judge!!!,” the typewritten message read. “Keep MC Court Great!!”

The CURE study had already been commissioned by the time Simmons received the note. Still, it concluded that the incident “was not taken seriously” by court leadership.

Simmons, in an interview Thursday, said that she was disappointed by how the governing board responded at the time and that she felt its members were more concerned with “managing” her than with finding out what had happened. However, she said she was not surprised by the report’s findings and was troubled by the fact it took a year for them to come out.

“All of us Black folks that work in this court already knew what the report was going to say because we live it every day,” she said. “The cover-up is 10 times worse.”

The study also found:

  1. Almost a quarter of judges and 17% of staff reported experiencing discrimination in some form at work.

  2. Nearly all judges agreed that court employees had a responsibility to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion. But 70% said they were either neutral or disagreed that court administrators support employees who share experiences with racialized incidents.

  3. While just over half of the court staff agreed that the courts’ policies promoted fair treatment of employees regardless of their backgrounds, only about a third said they trusted administrators to actually implement those policies fairly.

  4. Female judges of color rated court leadership’s commitment to equity lower than any other racial or gender cohort. Male judges of color rated that commitment higher than their male and female white counterparts.

  5. Black female employees, in particular, noted significant experiences of workplace harassment, racism, and lack of internal mobility, with some reporting they felt pressure after receiving promotions to justify to colleagues why they deserved it.

Undergirding all of this, the study’s authors noted, is near universal agreement among judges and staff that nepotism and political connections unduly influence hiring, promotions, and salary decisions.

“It is clear that judges and administrative leadership are deeply aware of its presence and are either unwilling to change it or do not believe they have the capacity to challenge it,” the study found.

The report included a number of recommendations that the governing board’s members said Thursday they had recently begun to put in place.

“We acknowledge the power of diversity and the need to encourage and promote dialogue on issues of race that should have been discussed and confronted long ago,” they said. “We stand committed to doing so as we move forward.”

Read the report: