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Judge Who Allegedly Hurled Slurs Is Back on the Bench, But Without a Docket

Surrogate Court Judge Harriet Thompson allegedly used prejudiced language, but another judge ruled that didn’t mean she could be barred from the courthouse’s private spaces.

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Surrogate Court Judge Harriet Thompson speaks at Brooklyn Borough Hall in 2019.

Screengrab/Brooklyn Borough President/YouTube

A Brooklyn judge who was suspended from her coveted post in surrogate’s court for alleged homophobic and anti-Hispanic remarks is getting back her courthouse keys — thanks to a recent ruling from a fellow Kings County jurist, who found that court administrators overstepped their authority by taking the keys away.

In December 2021, after a court inspector general’s report documented hateful statements that Brooklyn Surrogate Court Judge Harriet Thompson allegedly made in front of court staff about Hispanics, whites, gays, West Indians, the overweight and the ill, the state’s Office of Court Administration blocked the judge from hearing new cases. She was also made to surrender her keys and access cards to court facilities.

The inspector general referred the matter to the state’s judicial commission and Thompson remained on payroll during the still ongoing probe of the claims about her remarks.

On one occasion, the inspector general accused Thompson of insulting various members of the judiciary for their sexual orientation, allegedly saying, “Being gay is an abomination to mankind. Man shall not lay with man.”

On another occasion, the inspector general alleges, Thompson declared that she did “not like Hispanic people,” continuing: “They have a deceitful trait that goes way back to biblical times ... The men are always stealing, and the women are no better, they lie, steal, and use their vaginas for anything they want.”

Thompson, who was elected to a 14-year term that began in 2019 with the backing of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, denied making these “falsely attributed” statements in a subsequent court filing — “with the exception of one comment objecting to homosexuality, which is religious speech protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of both the United States’ and New York State Constitutions.”

Having been kicked off the bench, Thompson sued the Office of Court Administration (OCA). She argued it had no authority to suspend her, an elected official, and that the complaints and subsequent investigation were “retaliation” following a dispute she had with another court employee. Thompson had  accused the employee of shoddy accounting practices in estate matters and creating “a hostile environment” for Black employees. (That employee, Richard Buckheit, a former prosecutor and deputy executive director for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, previously filed a court petition against Thompson and accused her of homophobia and bringing real estate work in the public administrator’s office to a standstill, among other allegations. The petition filed by Buckheit, who declined to comment for this story, was declared moot after Thompson was suspended. The court in that case had previously found that Thompson was within her right as a surrogate court judge to remove Buckheit from cases on her docket following their dispute.)

Last December, three days before Christmas, Karen Rothenberg, another Brooklyn judge, partially vindicated Thompson’s claims that the OCA had gone too far, declaring that the agency had “identified no specific statute or court rule that would otherwise allow the Chief Administrator to bar a judge from the courthouse or require the return of [Unified Court System] equipment.”

Rothenberg ordered, in a decision first reported by the Daily News, that Thompson should be given back her keys, access cards, court computer, and other equipment. She also held that the judge’s removal from the bench will have to be lifted if the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the independent agency tasked with reviewing judicial complaints, decides to dismiss the pending allegations against her.

Matthew Berman, Thompson’s attorney, called the ruling a “partial win,” though his client will not get to hear cases again unless the judicial commission rules in her favor.

“We said, ‘Look, there are limits on the power of the Office of Court Administration, and they’ve exceeded the limits of that power.’ And the court has at least agreed that some of the things that we claimed exceeded their powers that we were correct on.”

Rothenberg gave the OCA a 30-day window to appeal her ruling. 

In an email, OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen declined to comment on the “pending matter,” referring THE CITY to its past court filings. Asked about whether his agency plans to appeal, he said, “We are considering our options.”

According to a September 2022 affidavit by Lawrence Marks, New York’s recently retired chief administrative judge, the Commission on Judicial Conduct’s investigation and adjudication of the complaints against Thompson could take “two years or more to complete.”

Until then, Thompson will continue to collect her paycheck; her annual salary was $210,900 at the time of her suspension. 

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