Law enforcement officials have opened investigations after an African American judge who was seeking to lead the city’s Municipal Court bench found a racist message in her robing room at the Criminal Justice Center.
“There Will Never Be A Black Bitch Running Our Court. You Won’t be President Judge!!! Keep MC Court Great!!” said the typewritten message, found Tuesday in the room off Judge Karen Yvette Simmons' courtroom.
The 55-year-old judge said the message, left in an interoffice envelope addressed to her, felt like a punch to the stomach.
“I’m kicking myself, because I just think I’m the toughest person in the world," said Simmons, who has been on the bench since 2006. "The first thing I thought is that I just couldn’t believe it. I was so disappointed because it had to be someone who works for the court, because otherwise they couldn’t be in the back area.”
Simmons said she called her husband; Family Court Judge Lori Dumas, her best friend on the bench; and the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office. A spokesperson for Sheriff Jewell Williams, whose office provides security for the court, confirmed that the incident is being investigated. The District Attorney’s Office is also investigating, according to Ben Waxman, spokesperson for District Attorney Larry Krasner.
“We are working with our law enforcement partners to investigate this matter,” Waxman tweeted.
Gabriel Roberts, a spokesperson for the First Judicial District, decried the letter in a statement.
“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," Roberts said. “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.”
Simmons ran in an election Thursday for president of the 25-judge court against Judges Charles Hayden, who is also African American, and Patrick Dugan, who is white. Dugan won with 18 votes, while Hayden received five and Simmons three.
Current Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield will complete her second five-year term in January and is not allowed to seek a third.
Municipal Court judges hear criminal cases where the maximum amount of potential prison time is five years or less, civil cases where the disputes are valued at $12,000 or less, landlord-tenant cases, and traffic cases. Judges are paid $176,127 per year, while the president judge gets $178,848.
Simmons was elected to the bench in 2005 and was inaugurated in January 2006. A native of Jacksonville, Fla., she moved to the Philadelphia region to attend Rutgers-Camden School of Law, where she obtained her law degree.
Prior to becoming a judge, Simmons worked as an assistant public defender and later an assistant city solicitor for the City of Philadelphia, where she focused on labor and employment law issues. Simmons was subsequently appointed as chief legal counsel to the Philadelphia Police Department and police commissioners.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, said he spoke with Simmons about the letter and offered to have the U.S. Capitol Police inspect the letter to see if they could find fingerprints.
“Some no-good cowardly bastard did that,” said Brady, who called her a “lovely lady” and backed Dugan for the post. “She certainly didn’t deserve that. It’s absolutely disgusting that someone would do that.”
Dugan, who said after the vote that he was “humbled and proud” to be the next president judge, agreed with Brady. “I concur with what Bob Brady said, but as a sitting judge, I can’t use the same language,” Dugan said.
Simmons declined to comment Thursday after the vote. In an interview earlier in the day, she called the whole episode “scary" and beyond her wildest imagination.
“The majority of the people that come into this building and come into my courtroom look just like me,” she said, "and if somebody -- I don’t care if it’s an employee or judge -- is willing to invade my personal space, and you have that much hate and fear for me becoming president judge, then what are you going to do to the public that comes in here to be treated respectfully and thinks they’re going to be treated fairly?”