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A federal judge claims he didn’t know what he was doing when he blew that dog whistle, but is apparently really sorry about it.
This racial controversy comes to us from the Central District of California, where Judge Cormac J. Carney began his term as the court’s chief judge on June 1. Shortly after that, during a webinar sponsored by the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association Judge Carney, well, he stepped in it.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times, in describing his acclimation adjusting to his new position on the court, he described working with Kiry Gray, the first Black woman to serve as the court’s executive and clerk of the court:
“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.
Folks were understandably upset with the racial connotations of calling this court professional “street-smart” as opposed to any number of terms denoting competence. As Carney himself describes, in a later conversation with Gray, Carney learned people were upset over his comment and sought to have him step down from his role as chief judge. And that’s when he compounded the problem:
“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.
Carney did not include the exact quote, but he apologized: “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.”
Judge Carney tried to explain his initial use of “street-smart” (“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.”) in an email to all court employees sent June 26th. In that email, Carney also announced he was stepping down from his role as chief judge:
“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, which The Times reviewed. “I cannot allow the Court to become politicized and embroiled in controversy.”
He will keep that lifetime appointment though. Judge Philip S. Gutierrez, appointed by George W. Bush as Carney was, will take over the role of chief.