A Manhattan Family Court clerk has been suspended without pay pending an investigation into allegations she used a racial slur describing a Black 15-year-old in a court hearing Thursday.
“In line with the Chief Judge’s zero tolerance policy for any form of bias or discriminatory speech or actions, the New York City Family Court clerk overheard making racially demeaning comments at the conclusion of a proceeding has been suspended without pay pending further investigation and disciplinary charges,” Lucian Chalfen, spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration wrote in an emailed statement.
The incident, first reported by the New York Post, occurred as the boy stood at the judge’s request, his boxers visible above the waistband of his pants. Then, clerk Donna Prainito allegedly exclaimed: “Look at this f—ing (racial slur) and his f—ing pants,” apparently unaware that everyone on the video conference could hear her. She then referred to the teen with a second anti-Black slur, this time using an Italian word.
Reaction was swift Friday following growing media attention to the incident.
The boy’s lawyer, Holden Thornhill, said in an interview with The Imprint Friday that a Manhattan Family Court judge and other court personnel reacted with horror when the white court clerk denigrated the teen at the end of the virtual delinquency court hearing.
“It’s almost like throwing sand on someone’s face, kicking someone while they’re down,” said Thornhill, who is also Black. “Having epithets hurled at him by court staff of all people? Crazy. It’s unfathomable.”
Across the city, condemnation has been broad, including reactions from the prosecutors on the case and the juvenile justice agency currently housing the youth in detention.
Kimberly Joyce, spokesperson for New York City’s Law Department said her agency “will cooperate in any way possible” with the review of the incident and welcomes its “swift” completion.
“The people whose futures are adjudicated in Family Court are children,” Joyce said. “No child – especially a child – should ever be referred to with the language alleged here. Certainly not by a court officer.”
She added her office’s prosecutors “strive to treat even our adversaries with fairness, compassion and respect in word and in deed. They should expect no less from every court employee.”
Thornhill, a court-assigned attorney in Manhattan for over 25 years who has litigated in courtrooms with Prainito for over a decade, said the boy’s mother did not hear the remarks due to bad reception. He also said the teen hadn’t heard the remarks and informed him today, due to the ensuing media coverage. The teen was due to appear in court again soon, Thornhill said.
“I had to make sure a complaint was filed, that was my mission, and a complaint has been filed,” he said, adding that the court system’s inspector general’s office had contacted him about the case. He had never heard Prainito use such hateful rhetoric before.
Prainito did not answer her phone Friday evening, and a voicemail message said her mailbox was full.
But the statewide Court Clerks Association, representing 1,500 court clerks who assist litigants and attorneys, is speaking out this week.
A message posted on the union’s homepage Friday evening states: “The Union was recently made aware of an incident involving one of its members who allegedly uttered a vile racist trope in open court during a recent court hearing. Such comments are unacceptable. We will never condone, or tolerate actions and expressions of discrimination, harassment and hatred based on race, faith, skin color, national origin, nationality, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression or disability.”
A union for public defenders who represent youth in Manhattan Family Court released a statement claiming Prainito “regularly comments loudly about the physical appearance of youth” in court and “influences jurists and inappropriately questions attorneys.”
The statement added that the Office of Court Administration had been made aware of the issues but had failed to prevent the behavior from escalating. Court administrators did not elaborate beyond its statement announcing the suspension and did not respond to follow-up requests for comment.
In an undated Facebook post sent to The Imprint by an attorney who works in Manhattan Family Court that could not be independently verified, Prainito comments on a news report about young Black men arrested for robbery in Harlem by posting the comment: “Gee Maybe I’ll see one of these little fuckers soon…”
Virtual event hot mics during the pandemic have exposed offensive speech and behavior mistakenly believed to be private – and now it appears the virtual courts are yet another example.
But racism in the New York State court system had previously come to light.
The allegation of a racist slur being used in court proceedings comes just six months after a report by former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson found that long-standing racial intolerance in New York State Courts contributes to “a second-class system of justice for people of color.”
Among a host of problems, the report said several interviewees described “a tendency of certain judges and court officers to ‘moralize’ at litigants of color and disparage them because of their dress or how they speak in court.” It also noted that some judges were unaware they can refer racist incidents to the inspector general, and that despite widespread concerns, the oversight office typically receives no more than 10 complaints in a given year.
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore commissioned Johnson’s report last summer after another high-profile display of bias, when a Brooklyn court officer used her Facebook page to share an image of a Black man who resembled former President Barack Obama being lynched.
The same day as Prainito’s outburst, protests erupted around the country in response to the release of a video that shows a Chicago police officer fatally shooting 13-year-old Adam Toledo, as he raised his hands above his head. Several New York City legal advocacy groups are now linking racism in the city’s courts to the disproportionate danger that young people of color face from police.
“As the images of his death are still fresh in our minds, we are reminded of the insidious racism that Black and brown people experience inside New York courtrooms every single day,” said a joint statement from the Legal Aid Society, Lawyers for Children and five other legal nonprofits that represent young people who can’t afford a private attorney.
“The use of racist slurs by court staff is part and parcel of the same system that allows police to repeatedly and disproportionately shoot Black and brown children, and we must seriously reckon with the ideology that fuels both,” they wrote.
A spokesperson for a coalition of New York City youth advocacy groups and researchers affiliated with City University of New York said they were “outraged and disgusted but not surprised” by the alleged racist incident. In September, the group released the results from 1,200 hours of court-watching in the city’s youth courts.
“Our data show that just the court experience itself is often understood as a form of punishment for young people,” reads the statement from the Youth Justice Research Collaborative. “Young people’s survival and perseverance through this deeply racist system is a testament to their strength, belief in their own power, and the consistent love and support of their families and broader communities.”