by Ines Borges
June 22, 2020
“You’re either racist or antiracist; there’s no such thing as ‘not racist.’”Ibram X. Kendi
With high-powered protests sparking significance around the country, many are asking how they can continue to show their allegiance for the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt it was necessary to share the current circumstances surrounding racial justice at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Our Court Watch is committed to transformative, racial justice by holding the courts accountable through our observation and reporting. The knowledge we expose holds immeasurable value when looking at the difficulty our community faces through our justice system.
In March of this year, it was announced that Judge Mark Tranquilli of Allegheny County’s Court of Common Pleas had been suspended from hearing any cases according to a court order issued by President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark. In a written complaint, Judge Tranquilli is accused of referring to a Black juror as “Aunt Jemima” during comments in chambers. These claims came after the acquittal of a drug case. As specified by the complainant, Judge Tranquilli also refers to the woman as having a “baby daddy” who is likely to sell drugs, leading her to make a biased decision and ultimately the not guilty verdict. After the verdict, Judge Tranquilli allegedly made these racially insensitive comments in his chambers in the prosecutor’s presence, Ted Dutkowski, and the defense attorney, Joe Otte. According to Judge Clark’s order, Tranquilli will be restricted to “administrative duties only, effective immediately.”
With this recent incident comes a history of additional inappropriate comments and complaints of Tranquilli’s harmful language in the courtroom. According to an article by The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, many defense attorneys at the court of common pleas have made past complaints about Judge Tranquilli, “alleging that he forces defendants into plea agreements, has a prosecutorial bent and makes intemperate remarks.” The article goes on to highlight an incident from a 2018 hearing. Tranquilli openly condemned a woman about having her two children out of wedlock while she was pleading guilty to drug charges. According to a transcript, Tranquilli is quoted saying,
“Are you familiar with the phrase, if you lay down with dogs, you wake up with fleas…you have woken up with two lovely children, probably two lovely children I’m betting you were probably not planning on…And for the cost of three shiny quarters in any bathroom in any rest stop in Pennsylvania, you probably could have gone a different direction.”
In another incident, Tranquilli is said to have spoken in ebonics in a complaint filed by an attorney in February. The attorney quoted Judge Tranquilli to have said, “And when I say communication, I don’t mean, ‘and den da bitch done dis, and den da bitch done dat.'”
Before being an Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge, Tranquilli was a deputy district attorney for the county, with complaints stemming decades back prior to being a judge. A Pittsburgh Post Gazette article from back in 2005 claims, “Deputy District Attorney Mark Tranquilli plans to write a letter of apology to District Judge Rob Wyda…Tranquilli and Assistant Public Defender James Sheets launched into an angry back-and-forth during a preliminary hearing for a homicide suspect”. The article continues with a statement from DA Stephen Zappala, “We have concluded that although [Tranquilli] may not have violated any rules of disciplinary conduct, he violated the rules of civility.”
Following his recent administrative leave, the Pennsylvania Judicial Board has neither confirmed nor denied if a current investigation into Tranquilli is being held.
“In a racist society, it is not enough to be nonracist. We must be anti-racist.”Angela Davis
The Pennsylvania Constitution established a specific mechanism for judicial officers’ discipline, independent of the legislature or state governor. The provisions created the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board, with the intent and authority to investigate reports of judicial misconduct and prosecute and adjudicate them. Once a complaint is made to the Judicial board an investigation is launched. If warranted, it files charges against the accused judge in the Court of Judicial Discipline. The court then hears formal charges brought against a judge by the board and decides whether or not to impose discipline. The judge may appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, or if he/she is a Supreme Court Justice, to a Special Tribunal.
While Judge Tranquilli still obtains access to the court’s administrative duties, it is alarming that the Pennsylvania Judicial Board no less than confirms that an investigation is indeed occurring. With no indication of future removal, Judge Tranquilli continues to unjustly hold such an influential position. Considering a decade of complaints made by attorneys and court officials, what will it take to see the permanent removal of this judge from our courtrooms. Someone who does not suitably use their judicial power normalizes this behavior for future cases and judges to treat defendants as offensively as Tranquilli has thus far. Now is the time for the court of common pleas to take action on a situation that challenges the integrity of Allegheny County’s judicial system.
“The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it – and then dismantle it”Ibram X. Kendi
Ines Borges is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in Administration of Justice. She is also an active member of the Court Watch program and an intern with ALC.
Header graphic by William Lukas
“2018 Annual Report.” 2018-Annual-Report-Judicial-Conduct-Board-of-Pennsylvania-, 2018, judicialconductboardofpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2018-Annual-Report-Judicial-Conduct-Board-of-Pennsylvania-1.pdf.
“Judge Accused of Making Racist Remarks Forbidden from Hearing Cases.” Gazette, 6 Feb. 2020, www.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2020/02/06/Allegheny-County-Common-Pleas-Judge-Mark-Tranquilli-racist-remarks-forbidden-hearing-cases/stories/202002060120.
Silver, Jonathan D. “Uncivil Court Prosecutor to Apologize for Dustup at Hearing.” Gazette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 17 May 2005, www.post-gazette.com/uncategorized/2005/05/17/Uncivil-court-prosecutor-to-apologize-for-dustup-at-hearing/stories/200505170226.
Ward, Paula Reed. “Allegations of Racist Comments Put Judge Tranquilli under Scrutiny.” Gazette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5 Mar. 2020, www.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2020/03/08/Allegations-of-racism-put-Judge-Mark-V-Tranquilli-under-scrutiny/stories/202003040183.