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Chief federal judge in L.A. steps down over racially insensitive comments about Black court official

U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney poses in a courtroom
U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney, shown in 2005, was appointed in 2003 to a lifetime post on the federal bench by George W. Bush. He will step down as chief district judge but remain on the bench.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The chief judge for the Central District of California, the nation’s largest federal court jurisdiction, which includes Los Angeles and its neighboring counties, has stepped down from that post, citing his racially insensitive comments regarding the court’s top administrative official, a Black woman.

U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney, who began a four-year term as chief district judge June 1, announced his decision to step down from the top post but remain a judge in an email Friday to court staff and fellow judges, and offered a public apology to Kiry K. Gray.

A federal court employee for 35 years, Gray in 2015 became the first Black woman appointed to be the Central District’s executive and clerk of court, a job that entails working closely with the chief judge to oversee court operations.

“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.”

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Reached by phone, Gray declined to comment.

Carney did not respond to an email seeking further comment. He will remain a federal judge, but he said in his email that Judge Philip S. Gutierrez would take over the duties of chief district judge.

In his email, Carney, a former Orange County Superior Court judge who was appointed in 2003 to a lifetime post on the federal bench by George W. Bush, summarized the remarks and the critical reaction that culminated in his resignation as chief district judge.

The controversy erupted around the time of a June 9 webinar sponsored by the local chapter of the Federal Bar Assn.

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During the webinar, Carney gave an overview of his vision for his time as chief judge and discussed the protests and vandalism in several cities across the nation following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

“It’s been sad, quite frankly, seeing our courthouses vandalized with graffiti,” Carney said in the webinar.

When Carney began discussing his adjusting to the role of chief district judge, his comments turned to Gray.

“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.

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Several who heard the “street-smart” comment or learned of the remarks afterward interpreted the compliment as having a derogatory and racially insensitive layer, and Carney acknowledged that judges, court staff and attorneys were upset.

The judge sought to explain himself: “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.”

Carney made a second comment to Gray during a later conversation with her. Carney said that during the conversation, he learned that some found his “street-smart” remark to warrant his stepping down as chief district judge.

“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.

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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.”

The decision by Carney to step down comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented disruptions to courts, forcing courthouses to close or limit access, with a delay in trials and a growing backlog in cases. In the Central District of California, several judicial vacancies have gone unfilled, compounding the workload.

In the June 9 webinar, Carney expressed hope that some of the judicial posts would soon be occupied.

“I’ve never seen the politics so divisive as they are now,” Carney said. “I am cautiously optimistic that we’ll have at least three, maybe four judges before the election.”


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