(CN) – Pictures that recently surfaced from a California Judicial Council office Halloween party have ignited a firestorm of criticism from the Legislature, as lawmakers and other groups condemned council staff for dressing up in prison garb in a display that prompted accusations of insensitivity to the social issues of race and gender identity.
“The racist actions of those associated with the Judicial Council are shameful! As a diverse state, we expect these legal professionals to show greater sensitivity and awareness to the feelings of others,” said Assemblyman Chris Holden, a Democrat from Pasadena and chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus.
The controversy stems from a 2016 Halloween party at the council’s Sacramento office. In photos posted to the council’s intranet, staff for the state judicial rulemaking body were seen posing in cubicles made up to look like prison cells, darkening their faces, and wearing wigs with dread locks in imitation of the TV show “Orange Is the New Black.” In one photo, a man posed in a woman’s wig, impersonating a transgender actress on the show. The costumes were an apparent hit, as the employees ended up winning a “best decorations” award.
The NAACP demanded an apology from the Judicial Council after the ABC affiliate in San Francisco broke the story earlier this week. Rev. Amos Brown, president of the NAACP’s San Francisco chapter, told ABC’s Dan Noyes, “It does concern me because they have adopted in their minds, their spirits, the prison culture. They don’t see these prisoners as being human beings, they see it as being a fun thing.”
Noyes reported that the photos have since been taken down.
The Alliance of California Judges, a group representing 500 retired and active judges, circulated the ABC story on Thursday. “As of last November, the AOC has a workforce of over 740 employees,” the alliance said in a statement. “Apparently, many of them have too much time on their hands and not enough sense and sensitivity to use it wisely.”
The ABC story noted that a longtime employee of Administrative Office of the Courts, as the Judicial Council staff was previously called, complained about the Halloween theme and criticized the agency’s cut in funding for black history month. The office cut about $1,600 for black history events, canceled a field trip in a state-owned van and relegated the black history display to the basement of the federal building. The council’s black history month committee had voted to feature the Black Panther Party, but the council apparently decided it could not support the theme, thereby resuscitating a conflict from a half-century ago.
The photos of the prison-garb Halloween theme also prompted outrage from the state’s black legislators, who on Thursday blasted the bureaucracy not only for the racist and allegedly transphobic display, but also for an incongruous insensitivity toward those in prison.
“The California Legislative Black Caucus advocates for diversity and equality and is appalled by the actions of the Judicial Council, the policymaking unit of the justice system. Oversight on such activities calls into question the diversity in the Judicial Council,” Holden said. “Council employees made light of those incarcerated, not considering the negative effects incarceration has on them physically, mentally, or psychologically. The costumes worn by employees of the council insinuate that those who are in the prison system are only minorities and are justly incarcerated.”
Martin Hoshino, the administrative director of the Judicial Council staff, issued a statement late Thursday. “In a public organization where the number one goal is access, fairness, and diversity, the events that transpired last October at a staff Halloween costume contest were insensitive and unacceptable. Corrective action was taken and executive management continues to take steps to rectify concerns and to promote an environment of respect in the workplace,” Hoshino said.
“As someone who spent more than 15 years in our state corrections and rehabilitation system working to promote rehabilitation strategies for incarcerated individuals, a prison theme was wholly inappropriate. The images of the event were more disturbing because they were of staff whose mission is the advancement of the consistent, independent, impartial, and accessible administration of justice. Our employees should be held to a higher standard where even the appearance of bias or prejudice is not permissible.”
Hoshino went on to apologize to Amos, as well as to the Judicial Council staff and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who chairs the council.
“I am sorry that this event occurred and have relayed my apologies to the chief justice, the Rev. Amos Brown of the NAACP, and to our staff. I will be continuing outreach with the NAACP as discussed with Rev. Brown as well as with other groups, and continuing efforts will be made to promote an environment of respect in the workplace and respect for the diverse people we serve,” he said.
The California Capitol Black Staff Association also rebuked the council, saying it was trying to “sweep the incident under the rug.” In a statement, the nonprofit called for disciplinary action to be taken against the participants.
“The Judicial Council’s attempt to downplay the incident by arguing that ‘no employee wore blackface’ is a clear and atrocious attempt to sweep the racist actions of their personnel under the rug,” said the staff association. “We join the other organizations that have called for a public apology and for disciplinary action to be taken against the employees who participated in these malicious acts.”
Assemblyman Mike Gibson of Los Angeles, who chairs the Democratic Caucus, also called for disciplinary action, posting a statement on his website saying, “For a public policymaking body that is equipped with the responsibility of fair access to the courts, it is highly disappointing that a group of judicial staff members would put down a race simply to win a contest.”
He added, “It is never okay to engage in stereotypical behavior or homophobic mockery, all while distributing offensive photos over a public server for ridicule. This action will not go unchallenged.”