SF Public Defender’s Office Charges Judge Used ‘N-Word’ Repeatedly, Gratuitously in Complaint with Judicial Performance Commission

By Crescenzo Vellucci Jr.
Sacramento Vanguard Bureau Chief

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – A San Francisco County Superior Court judge used the “N-word” in court “repeatedly and gratuitously,” according to a complaint filed against him with the Commission on Judicial Performance by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

The PD’s Office, in an official statement this past week, said Judge Harry Dorfman “repeated this word without showing awareness of the trauma its utterance inflicts and without consideration of alternatives that could ensure a sufficient record.”

Noting the court “has an obligation to conduct proceedings in a dignified and respectful manner to both litigants and the public,” the PD’s Office said, “The judge’s conduct has harmed litigants we represent, many of whom are Black, as well as staff in our office. We urge the Commission on Judicial Performance to take action to prevent this harmful conduct from taking place again.”

Dorfman, appointed to the bench in 2013 by Gov. Jerry Brown, is a former SF District Attorney’s Office Homicide Unit manager and former professor at SF Law School. He graduated from UC Hastings College of Law, with an undergraduate degree from Harvard.

The PD Office said it “reached out” to the judge to “share our concerns,” but he refused “multiple” requests to do so.

In the complaint, the PD’s Office wrote, “Claiming he needed a complete record, Judge Dorfman repeated this word without showing awareness of the trauma its utterance inflicts and without consideration of alternatives that could ensure a sufficient record, such as spelling the full word out or a stipulation. The court has an obligation to conduct proceedings in a dignified and respectful manner to both litigants and the public.”

The complaint noted the judge’s use of the “N-word” is “wholly inappropriate…Dehumanizing and Perpetuates White Supremacy.”

The PD complaint points out, “In the American criminal legal system, Black persons are disproportionately targeted in criminal prosecutions and over-represented in jails and prisons. Meanwhile, the judiciary, which largely holds the keys to the system, is overwhelmingly white.

“Given the role that the legal system has historically played in upholding and perpetuating institutional racism and white supremacy, the judiciary is ill-served by allowing a white judge sitting in a position of power to gratuitously repeat this offensive term in the courtroom without thought or consideration. Indeed, such conduct warrants swift rebuke.”

The complaint argues, “The N-word has been described as ‘a linguistic extension of white supremacy’ that has functioned throughout its history as a means to ‘help … perpetuate and reinforce the durable, insidious taint of presumed African-American inferiority,’ particularly when used by white people to refer to Black people,” noting there is “an important difference between a Black witness, victim, or defendant using this word in a case before the court, and a white judge who is in a position of more power gratuitously and unnecessarily repeating that very same word, even if quoting that witness.

“Words derive meaning from context, including the identity of the speaker. Needlessly repeating this word—particularly given its long, hateful, and violent history—erodes the neutrality and integrity of the court. The use of this word inflicts trauma on the Black psyche, inflames racial tension, and creates a perception that its use was intentionally derogatory.”

The complaint listed several instances of the judge either repeating the “N-word” when quoting from testimony, or just using it “gratuitously.”

“This record demonstrates a disturbing, gratuitous pattern of using the N-word. Judge Dorfman first used the term…when he was not even directly quoting the evidence. Such use was clearly unnecessary. Moreover, Judge Dorfman’s decision to repeat the N-word three times was disconcerting given the many alternatives available for establishing a record,” argued the PD complaint.

The judge also appears, from the transcripts used in the complaint, to have ordered the public defender in a case to use the “N-word,” apparently defending the use of the word by maintaining, “Use it (the N-word) when you ask the question. It’s a court of law. We deal with information the way things really are in life. I want a good record for both sides for this case.”

But public defender responded, “I understand that, your Honor. I don’t—I don’t agree with using the word in court.”

The judge didn’t accept that, stating, “I disagree with you. We deal with the reality of life. You have used a lot of four-letter words such as fuck or fucking. No objection by anybody properly because it’s the alleged statements made.”

The public defender finally relented to what could be described as “court bullying,” and said, “If that’s the order of the Court, I’ll follow it.”

The complaint provided other courtroom examples, noting, “The judge did not afford any alternative, such as the parties stipulating that the full word had been used or stipulating that the portion of a transcript of the recording which contained the full word was a true and accurate reflection of what was said.”

The PD Office also pointed out that in at least one, or more, cases, the only Black people in court were the complaining witness and an accused, and “this is not an unfamiliar picture in our criminal legal system where nearly all litigants and the Court are non-Black and those who stand to lose their liberty or who have been harmed often are Black or brown.”

The complaint charged the judge “trivialized the harm that the word inflicts by likening it to the ‘F’ word. This is hardly an apt comparison. The full N-word has historically been used—and continues to be used—to invoke hatred towards and subjugation of Black persons, the Jim Crow South, lynchings, police violence and terrorism against Black people.”

The PD Office insisted the use of the “N-word” has a “singular purpose is imposing the false ideology of white racial superiority over Black people. The epithet is dehumanizing and continues to cause pain. The ‘F’ word, though an expletive that can offend people, has no comparable connotation.”

The complaint asks the Judicial Commission to “take all actions available to you, including a public admonishment or public censure and a tailored training, to ensure this conduct does not reoccur. Regardless of intent, Judge Dorfman’s conduct has inflicted harm and must be addressed.”

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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