Black Robes, White Justice, by Judge Bruce Wright, is one of my favorite titles touching on the criminal legal system! The title itself speaks volumes. Bruce Wright was a distinguished New York City Judge and, in light of the current debates about crime and bail reform, specifically in NYC, the late Judge Wright should be uplifted.
Long before the current bail reform movement, Judge Wright was dealing with the issue of imposing fair bail on people charged with crimes. During the 1970s until the present, many judges in NYC would by default impose excessive bail on poor defendants, bail so high the people presumed to be innocent until proven guilty were held in places like Rikers Island for up to three years before their day in court. In far too many cases, their trials did not last three days. A couple were one day trials! Thus, why the delay in bringing them to trial? (That’s rhetorical.) Their cases were not complicated, not if they could be disposed of in less than three days.
Judge Wright, in imposing fair bail, looked to the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to wit: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” For following the Constitution, and in imposing fair bails, not the king’s ransoms many NYC judges imposed on poor people charged with crimes, in the NYC tabloids, Judge Wright was dubbed, “Cut ‘em Loose Bruce!”
Judge Wright calls out a judge or two in his book, even Black judges. Ironically, many Black judges administer “white justice.” This has been a fundamental problem of the criminal legal system and law enforcement. Oftentimes, Blacks in the legal field, from judges to prosecutors to the beat cop, try to prove to their white colleagues that they can administer “justice” in the same way. If the scales of justice are tilted against Black and Brown people, and the poor, then something is fundamentally wrong with Black jurists imposing “white justice.” My argument to Black jurists, for quite some time, has been: Black and Brown folk are not asking for any special preferences in the criminal legal system from Black jurists. They are only asking them to balance the scales of justice.
Judge Wright famously calls out William Thompson, an Administrative Judge in Kings County Supreme Court. Then, before the Individual Assignment System, the Administrative Judge assigned cases. “Willie,” as Judge Wright calls Judge Thompson, dubbed himself the “king maker.” I would add “queen maker.” Thompson romantically allied himself with a white woman judge in Kings County Supreme Court, Sybil Hart Kooper, who dubbed herself the “Dragon Lady.” Thompson made sure he assigned “high profile” cases to Judge Kooper, making her the Queen of the Court to his Kingship. Court watchers have reported that Willie would often visit Sybil in her courtroom when Black and Brown “defendants” were on trial for their lives, and even the teenagers standing trial before the Dragon Lady knew that something was going on, even if they could not articulate it. So much “white justice” happened under Kooper’s Court I could write a book.
This book, Black Robes, White Justice, is a must read for advocates and any person of color looking to serve on the bench or have anything to do with the administration of “justice.” If “justice” was truly colorblind, then Judge Wright would not be calling out “white justice!”