Chief justice should apologize

  • Wednesday July 19, 2017
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It was only recently reported that a California Judicial Council Halloween party last year went completely off the rails, and the reason why the council, which is the policymaking body for the state's courts, is now being asked for a formal apology. It should issue one immediately.

ABC7 News last week reported on the costume party, held at the council's Sacramento office. The video was difficult to watch, as some employees dressed like inmates and turned their cubicles into mock prison cells. Longtime staffer Michael Roosevelt said that other council employees darkened their faces and wore dreadlocks. One man donned a wig in an effort to imitate transgender TV star Laverne Cox, who plays a prisoner on the Netflix show "Orange is the New Black." The employees' depiction of that show won the "best decorations award" at the party, but as Roosevelt told the station, "If you are a person who is transgender and in prison, your life is in jeopardy."

The party photos were removed from the council's internal intranet, and the supervisor involved was directed to offer a course on diversity and respect. But NAACP San Francisco Chapter President the Reverend Amos Brown told ABC 7 that an apology is needed. Brown also noted that one of the problems with the party was that the participants "adopted in their minds, their spirits, the prison culture. They don't see these prisoners as being human beings, they see it as being a fun thing," he said.

At the very least, the council employees who participated exhibited a gross lapse in judgment. African-American men are disproportionately incarcerated in this country. Unarmed black men �" and women �" have been killed by police officers with such frequency that it now fails to register as an outrage by most people. (The fatal police shooting this week of a white woman in Minneapolis might change that.) Trans prisoners are routinely denied access to appropriate medical care and other services. And yet, a group of employees that work for the government agency that interacts with these people thought it would be funny to dress up like them and pretend to be in prison.

Excuse us, but that is not funny.

The chair of the Judicial Council is California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. She has had little to say about the party, except to issue a brief statement that the council "does not condone any activity that diminishes the value of individuals or the ideals of our justice system." Her statement was not as forceful as when she was critical of the federal Departments of Justice and Homeland Security earlier this year for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers allegedly stalking undocumented immigrants in California courthouses to make arrests.

The Alliance of California Judges, which is often critical of court bureaucracy, issued a statement calling for better accountability and for the Legislature to take control of the judicial branch. That's a bad idea, but it condemned council staff members "engaged in activities that were highly offensive and antithetical to the core mission of the judicial branch."

Late last week, Martin Hoshino, administrative director of the Judicial Council, issued a statement about the Halloween costume contest, calling it "insensitive and unacceptable." He said that "corrective action was taken" and that executive staff continue to take steps to rectify concerns and to "promote an environment of respect in the workplace."

"The images of the event were more disturbing because they were of staff whose mission is the advancement of the consistent, independent, impartial, and accessible administration of justice," Hoshino stated.

He said he had relayed his apologies to Cantil-Sakauye.

That's a good first step. Now, Cantil-Sakauye needs to issue an unequivocal apology to Brown and the greater community. Cantil-Sakauye should do the right thing and forcefully acknowledge that these types of costume parties won't happen again, and that the Judicial Council holds itself to a much higher standard.