The Black Ceiling: Why aren’t there more judges of color?

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Monroe County might see the first black judges we’ve had in close to three decades– if they’re elected this fall.

Fatimat Reid, an attorney and Chief of Staff of the Rochester City School District and Zuleika Shepard, Deputy County Attorney for the Monroe County Law Department, declared their candidacies Monday morning. They’re campaigning for the two open seats in the county’s Family Court, meaning they’re not competing against each other and both could be elected.

“When elected, Ms. Shepard and Ms. Reid will be the first African American women ever to serve on Monroe County Family Court,” stated the Monroe County Democratic Committee, which endorsed the candidates.

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If elected, they would be the first black eeople to serve in higher court since the mid-1980s and the first black women to ever do so. Higher court includes Family, County and Supreme courts.

But why haven’t there been more judges of color? For all the talk of progress, it may be a little scary to consider that the last black judge in higher court, Charles Willis, was elected in the late 1970s. And he was endorsed by both parties, meaning he had no opposition.

Some people call it the Black Ceiling.

“It’s a barrier to positions of power in this county,” said Aaron Frazier, of Harris Beach LLC, explaining the phrase. “It exists for a host of factors, both malicious and benign. Both intentional and unintentional.”

He said the barrier is partially the result of overt racism as well as a lack of opportunities and long-term planning to recruit candidates of color. He added getting them on the bench depends on these candidates being charismatic, having a robust and energetic party that fully backs them, and more support from the community as well.

Aaron Frazier has been working to get more people of color on the bench. Credit: Tianna Mañón

Aaron Frazier has been working to get more people of color on the bench. Credit: Tianna Mañón

“People don’t really care how much you know, they just want to know how much you care,” said Frazier. “They want to know you have heart and I don’t think in the past we’ve done enough to emphasize the big hearts of our candidates.”

Some of those candidates include Melissa Barrett and Maritza Buitrago, both of whom lost in bids for county seats. He said racism factored heavily into the loss. Buitrago is originally from Puerto Rico and boasts a thick accent, which Frazier says may have worked against her, particularly outside of the city.

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“Buitrago was one of the most intelligent, gracious women I know,” he said. “She’s a great attorney, an experienced attorney but she lost. I think she faced a lot of unfair discrimination. There are a lot of people who didn’t already know her so they didn’t take her seriously for no other reason than racism and xenophobia and that’s something we need to address as a county.”

But it’s not just racism, he clarified. Candidates have to work harder to stand out. He said modern politics depends heavily on charisma. Unfortunately, smart candidates can’t win with just excellent platforms. They have to also “kiss a few babies.”

“In my opinion they probably weren’t the most charismatic,” said Frazier, qualifying his statement to point out that most candidates from all backgrounds could benefit from party help. Very few people have the skills they need to win a seat in their first campaign. It takes practice, feedback and work to hone the candidate- but that’s where the party comes in. They should help candidates by talking about the statistics, philosophical issues and the “boring work,” so to speak leaving candidates to discuss their personal stories and connect with voters on a more emotional and human level.

But why does any of this matter? Experts say it can influence the kind of justice and treatment defendants receive.

“Researchers, using a well-known measure called the Implicit Association Test, have found that most white Americans harbor implicit bias toward Black Americans,” wrote Jeffrey J. Rachlinski in a report titled “Does Unconscious Racial Bias Affect Trial Judges?”

“If implicit bias is as common among judges as it is among the rest of the population, it might even account for more of the racially disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system than explicit bias,” he continued. Black defendants are also more likely to be found guilty and have longer sentences.

Experts assert that the answer is to diversity the court so judges can bring their different experiences into the courtroom and understand defendants.

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“I am running to bring a much- needed perspective to the bench,” said Shepard. “I can relate to many of the litigants and children who appear in Family Court. I was raised in a single parent home in the city of Rochester. My family lived ‘paycheck to paycheck.’ I have sat in the same city school classrooms and walked the same neighborhoods as many of the children.”

“We need judges on the bench who can bring their first-hand experiences into the courtroom to ensure that each child that comes before that court will have confidence that their best interests are taken in every decision,” added Reid.

Both say they’d better understand defendants, allowing them hand down sentences that are fairer and more likely to encourage some to turn their lives around.

But come November, if they’re elected, experts say that doesn’t mean the work is done. Once they’re in, black woman judges still face a host of other issues. They may be ignored or taken less seriously.

And the work isn’t done for the community either. Voter turnout is low, averaging just 30-40 percent most years, and Frazier believes the community must support by talking about candidates (and issues in general) and financially. And to build a long-lasting pipeline of qualified candidates, he says we have to start even earlier and encourage young people with passions for law. Ultimately, these young people could become our next judges– even if it is 30 years from now.

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1 comment

  1. Celeste Ciaccia

    I worked on both of Maritza’s campaigns. She was tireless. Having seen her in action, I can attest to her charm and charisma. She was also more qualified than either of her opponents (a white male and a white female), both of whom were Republicans and heavily promoted by the party. I suspect they also had access to more funding, both from private sources and from the party; I do not think Maritza’s entire campaign budget even equalled what her last opponent spent on TV ads.
    I do believe that there was ignorance (people asking when she became a citizen!) and some prejudice. And her accent, while pronounced, was no more jarring than hearing or reading grammatical errors, which are rampant across the board.
    However, I suspect if the numbers breakdown is studied, the low percentage of minority voters is a major factor in keeping black and hispanic candidates out of the judiciary. I went door to door in the city and the suburbs. How many people who move notify the Board of Elections of their change of address/district? And let’s face it; judicial races are not sexy; candidates cannot argue hot social issues; attacks on opponents tend to be subtle. Dems and Republicans only gain bragging rights: Local judges do not push the party line or attract lobbyists, nor can they exert political influence or bring in money. So they are treated like throwaway candidates. In addition, the majority of citizens do not end up in county or supreme court, and even fewer appear in Family Court.
    One would think that with the disproportionate numbers of minority groups who interact with the police or the criminal justice system, or who end up being brought into Family Court as juvenile delinquents, PINS, or as parties to child neglect actions, that members of those minority groups would support an opportunity to elect minority judges. Yet this does not seem to be the case.

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