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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The chief judge of the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles and neighboring counties, will step down from that post after making racially insensitive comments about the court's top administrative official, a Black woman, according to a report. U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney, who began a four-year term as chief district judge of the nation's largest federal court jurisdiction on June 1, announced he would leave the top post but remain a judge, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Carney made the announcement in an email on Friday to court staff and fellow judges, and offered a public apology to Kiry K. Gray, who has served as a federal court employee for 35 years. In 2015, she became the first Black woman appointed to be the Central District's executive and clerk of court, a job that requires working closely with the chief judge to oversee court operations.
“I have apologized to Ms. Gray, but I have concluded that a simple apology will not put this matter to rest. There will be division in the Court, unnecessary, negative and hurtful publicity, and a diversion from the Court's essential mission of administering justice if I were to continue serving as the Chief District Judge,” Carney wrote in the email. “I cannot allow the Court to become politicized and embroiled in controversy.”
Carney, who grew up in Long Beach and graduated from UCLA is a former Orange County Superior Court judge who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2003 to a lifetime post on the federal bench. He said in the email that he will continue as a federal judge, but that Judge Philip S. Gutierrez would take over as chief district judge. The controversial remarks stemmed from a June 9 webinar sponsored by the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association in which Carney provided an overview of his vision as chief judge and discussed the nationwide protests and vandalism after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “It's been sad, quite frankly, seeing our courthouses vandalized with graffiti,” he said in the webinar. In discussing his adjustment to the role of chief district judge, he made a comment about Gray. “Fortunately for me, we have just a fabulous clerk of the court in Kiry Gray. She's so street-smart and really knows her job,” Carney said.
The Times reported that several people who heard the “street-smart” comment or learned of it afterward interpreted the term as being derogatory and racially insensitive, and Carney acknowledged that judges, court staff and attorneys were upset. He sought to explain himself by saying, “To me, the term means a person of great common sense, initiative and ability to work with people and get things done. It saddened me greatly to learn that some people view the term to be demeaning to people of color. I never knew that there was a different definition of the term.” Carney then made a second comment to Gray during a later conversation with her, saying he learned that some people found his “street-smart” remark to warrant his stepping down as chief district judge.
“In a moment of anger and frustration, I said to Ms. Gray that the people criticizing me were equating my well-intended use of the term ‘street-smart’ with the reprehensible conduct of a police officer putting his knee on a person's neck,'' Carney said. He did not include the exact quote in the email, but apologized by saying, “My statement was wrong. It was directed at my critics, not Ms. Gray, and I said it with no ill will or disrespect towards people of color. My statement was an insensitive and graphic overreaction to the criticism that was leveled against me. I never should have made the comparison.”
Carney's stepping down happens while the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruptions and delays to courts, creating a growing backlog of cases. Meanwhile, several judicial vacancies have gone unfilled in the Central District, increasing the workload. However, Carney suggested in that same webinar that some of those judicial posts may be filled soon, saying he was “cautiously optimistic that we'll have at least three, maybe four judges before the election.”