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Judge Faces Ethics Charges Over Racist, Demeaning Comments

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh.

A Pittsburgh judge who allegedly referred to a Black juror as “Aunt Jemima” was accused of misconduct in office Wednesday by the state's entity that investigates and prosecutes judicial wrongdoing.

The Judicial Conduct Board complaint alleges that Allegheny County Judge Mark Tranquilli, a white former prosecutor who has been on the bench since 2014, made demeaning comments to and about litigants and defendants in violation of state constitutional standards and state rules that govern judges’ behavior.

After the verdict in a January 2020 drug case, the complaint states, Tranquilli referred to a Black juror who wore her hair in a kerchief as “Aunt Jemima” during in-chambers discussions with lawyers. He is also charged with speculating that the juror's “baby daddy” was a heroin dealer.

Tranquilli's lawyer, John E. Quinn, did not return a message seeking comment.

The complaint alleges that during an August 2015 custody hearing, Tranquilli said his only concern was his own three children, not the litigants’ children, and described himself as a former homicide prosecutor who was “merely passing time in the family division” until he could be assigned criminal cases.

“Judge Tranquilli said that he would split the couple’s ‘baby in half like Solomon and sleep like a baby that night,’" the complaint charged, referencing the biblical story of a king who settled a dispute over a child between two women, each of whom claimed to be the mother.

The board contends Tranquilli told the defendant in a 2018 sentencing that she has “two lovely children, probably two lovely children I’m betting you were probably not betting on. And for the cost of three shiny quarters in any bathroom in any rest stop in Pennsylvania, you probably could have gone a different direction.”

The board also describes Tranquilli as telling another defendant that if he did not show up to start serving a sentence in a month, “I’m going to cast you down amongst the Sodomites, all right, in state prison.”

The Judicial Conduct Board said Tranquilli told a defendant his experience prosecuting homicide cases left “no milk of human kindness” in his veins. “It is just too much death,” he told her.

He’s accused of not living up to state rules requiring judges to act in ways that promote public confidence in the judiciary and to do their job in a patient, dignified and courteous way, and without bias or prejudice.

Tranquilli was reassigned to summary appeals and barred from hearing cases in February, after the “Aunt Jemima" allegation came to light.

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