PLBC urges Judicial Conduct Review Board to investigate Allegheny County judge

HARRISBURG, Feb. 12 – Following Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Mark Tranquilli being reassigned on Tuesday to summary appeals after allegedly calling a Black female juror “Aunt Jemima” and making other racist remarks toward her, members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus are now urging the Judicial Conduct Review Board to investigate.

Leading the effort are PLBC members representing Allegheny County, who condemned Tranquilli’s comments as another manifestation of a broken criminal justice system that systemically targets black and brown people.

“The alleged comments made by Judge Mark Tranquilli are alarming on multiple fronts,” said state Rep. Austin Davis, who represents the 35th Legislative District in Allegheny County. “On one hand we have an individual tasked with upholding the law to the highest extent but who clearly harbors bias and judgment toward defendants before a verdict is even reached. On the other hand, we have a judge who harbors an even stronger bias toward people of color, both of which are a recipe for disaster and an injustice to our community. I’m calling on the Judicial Conduct Review Board to do a thorough investigation into this matter.”

State Rep. Edward C. Gainey, who represents the 24th Legislative District, also in Allegheny County, echoed similar sentiments.

“Our society is based on the belief that justice is blind – that regardless of race, color or creed, every man and women will be treated and judged the same. And so, when we hear allegations like this, it doesn’t just reflect poorly on one judge, or one courtroom, but on the entire justice system,” Gainey said. “This is a great example as to why black and brown people have fear and reservations about our criminal justice system. How can people of color believe they will get a fair chance in court when we hear about an incident like this? How can we be asked to trust a system in which these remarks exhibit an explicit bias? If justice is not blind, then it cannot be fair, and it is no justice at all.”

The PLBC treasurer, state Rep. Summer Lee, a civil rights and constitutional law attorney serving her first term representing the 34th Legislative District, said the incident unveils the racial biases pervasive in Allegheny County’s criminal justice system.

“When we read about or see incidents like this, we must pause and ask ourselves what message this sends to our community. To me, that message is sadly clear: Justice is neither blind nor deaf in Allegheny County. In a system in which black and brown people are disproportionally represented, this incident shows that systemic bias goes beyond incarceration statistics but is sitting on the very bench that controls the courtroom.  How can we have faith in a system that has no faith in us, or that is unwilling or unable to see beyond stereotypes to see us for who we are?”

PLBC Vice Chairwoman Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Phila., and Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Phila./Delaware, also both attorneys, condemned the embattled judge’s alleged comments as tarnishing the credibility of legal professionals.

“There is no room for bias and racism in our judicial system, especially on the bench. Implicit bias, and in this case not so implicit, can be damaging to individuals and to the credibility of our legal community,” Bullock said. “We all have a duty to safeguard the integrity of our courts, and that's why I applaud counsel for reporting Judge Tranquilli's comments and President Judge Clark's swift and appropriate response.”

McClinton, added, “As an attorney who has represented countless clients in both bench and jury trials, I am appalled to think this kind of conduct happens anywhere in this Commonwealth. The reported comments, actions and attitude of this judge in Allegheny County are very disturbing. The only thing anyone wants entering a courtroom is fairness. These remarks suggest that people in front of this judge are denied that fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. I hope the Judicial Conduct Review Board takes swift and meaningful action to ensure that this does not happen in any court in Pennsylvania again.”

PLBC Chairman Rep. Stephen Kinsey concurred with his caucus members: “It’s deeply disturbing hearing such comments from a sitting common pleas judge and a former prosecutor charged with using morality as a compass in finding truth and seeking justice, but this incident is not an isolated one. This chants back to a deep-rooted and pervasive problem in our criminal justice system, not only in our commonwealth, but across our nation, a system that disproportionately targets black and brown bodies. I also beg to question whether his convictions throughout his tenure were motivated by racial biases. We are demanding this investigation to eradicate this systemic racism from an institution that is supposed to be unbiased and blind.”