Judge who allegedly called a juror 'Aunt Jemima' off the bench in Pennsylvania

The judge allegedly told a prosecutor that he should not have allowed "Aunt Jemima" on to a jury that acquitted an accused drug dealer.

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By David K. Li

A Pittsburgh judge was removed from the bench after allegedly using a racial slur in describing an African American female juror.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Mark Tranquilli has been "temporarily reassigned to perform administrative duties only, effective immediately," according to an order Thursday by that court's President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark.

"Judge Tranquilli shall not preside over any cases during this assignment," Clark ordered.

Tranquilli made the remark in January, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

A suspect had just been acquitted on the charge of possession of drugs with intent to deliver after being convicted earlier on simple possession.

Tranquilli called defense lawyer Joe Otte and Assistant District Attorney Ted Dutkowski into his chambers, where he accused the prosecutor of not doing "an adequate job screening potential jurors" and allowing a black female juror he referred to as "Aunt Jemima" on to the panel, according to a complaint filed with the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania.

"The judge then said that Ted had made a terrible decision by allowing 'Aunt Jemima' on to the jury," according to the complaint filed by Otte. "The juror ... was a young black woman who had worn a hair wrap throughout the trial."

The judge complained about other jurors before "the conversation returned to 'Aunt Jemima,' as he again referred to her," the complaint said.

"Judge Tranquilli asserted that he knows that her 'baby daddy' probably sells heroin and that her presumed bias in favor of the heroin dealers had caused or contributed to the not guilty verdict," Otte's complaint said.

Otte and a spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office both declined comment on the matter on Friday. Tranquilli did not immediately return messages seeking his comment on Friday.

"Aunt Jemima" is a character from late 19th century minstrel shows, based on stereotypical images of black female slaves. It is generally considered sexist and racist, though the term and image remains the brand name of a popular pancake batter and syrup.

Allegheny County Bar Association President Lori McMaster said her organization stands behind any efforts to "eliminate implicit and explicit racial bias in our legal system."

"As such, the ACBA is demanding a complete investigation by the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania of Judge Tranquilli's alleged communications to ensure that this matter received prompt attention and a just resolution," McMaster said in a statement on Thursday.

Judge Tranquilli's seat on the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court is an elected position. Four judges were elected to that bench in 2013 with Tranquilli, running as both a Democrat and Republican, winning election with the most votes.

Janell Ross contributed.