As N.Y. Courts Seek to Root Out Racism, a Clerk Is Heard Using a Slur

At the end of an hourlong virtual hearing in Family Court in Manhattan on Thursday, Holden E. Thornhill’s 15-year-old client, who is Black, stood up to alert the authorities at his detention facility that the hearing had finished.

As the teenager turned around, Mr. Thornhill said, a court clerk on the call could be heard insulting him, using several anti-Black slurs and vulgar language, apparently under the impression that she could not be heard.

Now, the court system’s inspector general is investigating the allegation of racist insults.

Lucian Chalfen, a courts spokesman, confirmed that a number of people had overheard what he referred to as a “pejorative remark,” and said that the matter had been referred to the court system’s inspector general for bias and discrimination.

The incident comes as New York’s court system attempts to confront apparent racism within the ranks of its employees. A report released in October that found that court officers routinely used racial slurs without consequence, calling the fundamental fairness of the state’s justice system into question.

And two months ago, New York’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore, issued a stern warning that the state’s court system would no longer tolerate bias, discrimination or harassment by judicial personnel.

Mr. Chalfen made reference to Judge DiFiore’s memo on Thursday, saying that the judge had been extremely clear about the courts’ lack of tolerance for racial bias. The memo made clear that any case involving claims of discriminatory conduct would necessitate a full disciplinary hearing.

Mr. Chalfen did not identify the clerk by name. Nor did Mr. Thornhill, though he said he knew her well because he has been practicing law in New York for more than 25 years.

“I happen to like her,” said Mr. Thornhill, who is Black. “But I’m very disappointed in her.”

He believed her words were directed at his client and had little doubt about what he heard, though at first, he said, he could hardly believe it. The expression on the prosecutor’s face indicated to him that he had not been mistaken.

“I saw the horror in her face, and it made me turn my camera off because I imagine I probably had the same look on my face,” he said.

Thursday’s hearing was delayed by technical issues, Mr. Thornhill said, and he thought it was likely that the clerk had assumed she was muted. Her remarks seemed to be prompted, he said, by the way his client was wearing his pants.

“It was like she was thinking out loud, and everybody heard what she was thinking,” he said.

The president of the New York State Court Clerks Association could not be reached, and others with the association did not immediately return requests for comment. A call to a woman believed to be the clerk went unreturned, and she did not respond to a text message.

Mr. Chalfen would not elaborate on the details of the case, saying that a transcript of the hearing would not be available because it had occurred in Family Court, where proceedings are often kept private because they involve young people.

Racist conduct among court personnel has been a subject of particular concern since the spring of 2020 when, after the killing of George Floyd, Judge DiFiore asked a team led by Jeh C. Johnson, a former Homeland Security secretary, to conduct a review of racial bias within the state’s court system.

Their report found that racism was rampant in the system and was prevalent among court officers in particular. It highlighted several examples, including one white officer who posted on social media an illustration of President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck and another who referred to a Black colleague as “one of the good monkeys.”

Mr. Johnson’s report did not deal as directly with any potential issues among the ranks of New York’s court clerks, who play an administrative role within the system, taking filings, maintaining calendars and generally acting as a liaison between judges and lawyers.

But it did find that the system overall perpetrated racial biases. The impression his team members received after interviewing close to 300 court workers and observers was that of “a second-class system of justice for people of color in New York State.”

Mr. Thornhill, reflecting on the incident on Thursday, said that this clerk was not the only person who he had worked with for years whom he later saw engage in racist conduct, adding that her remarks had been reverberating in his head since the hearing had ended.

“It’s shocking,” he said. “When you’ve known someone for so long, no matter what your differences are culturally, you just don’t expect to see that part of them.”