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Racism in the Courts: A Discussion with Judge Milton Tingling

January 25, 2021

Judge Milton Tingling has a profound and longstanding background serving in the legal system: He’s the son of a judge, clerked for a New York Supreme Court justice, and was a solo practitioner. He was elected to the New York City Civil Court in 1996 and subsequently served as a New York Supreme Court Justice for 13 years. He is currently county clerk for New York County. 

Judge Tingling has witnessed—and experienced firsthand—systemic racism and bias in the court system. While his view is that things have improved, there is still much work to be done.

The judge shared his insights in a conversation with Morgan Lewis partner Richard Taffet, with whom he works at the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, where Judge Tingling is a director.

What was your first encounter with racism in the court system?

After graduating Brown University in 1975, I went back to New York to help my father—with whom I share a name—run for a judgeship. I then went on to graduate from the North Carolina Central University School of Law in 1982.

On my first day of clerking for a judge, I arrived at the administrative offices to complete my paperwork in the court building and gave them my name. The woman behind the counter, assuming I was only there because of my father and not my merits, told me “this is nepotism.”

Day two brought on another encounter. Wearing a new suit, I walked into the courtroom and took a seat in the front row, which was reserved for lawyers. I was approached by the court officers, who told me that I was to sit and wait in the gallery.

It was made clear to me how entrenched bias and racism existed within the law.

How did these experiences shape you?

These experiences were something I did not forget and carried with me. Years later, after being assigned to the bench, I saw similar interactions happening on my first day. Only this time, I was in a different seat.

They say there are no secrets in the courthouse and court system. Your reputation from day one is known and carries with you. It’s therefore important to be consistent if you are to be respected.

This new day one—as a judge—afforded me the opportunity to inform the court officers that what I was seeing would not, could not, and is not the policy or practice of my courtroom.

If you wonder how this was originally received? Not incredibly well. However, it was something I felt I needed to make clear. And from that day forward, everyone knew how I ran my courtroom.

Recently, the Special Advisor on Equal Justice made findings that the New York court system “is in effect, a second-class system of justice for people of color,” there is long-simmering racial tension and intolerance with the court officer community, and there is a need for bias training for judicial and non-judicial personnel, as well as jurors. What are your thoughts on this?

While many positive steps have been taken over the years, including this report from the Special Advisor, tensions remain. For me, this is especially rooted in my experiences in civil and criminal court. It was there where I more often was dealing with a population of people of color.

Bias training for those in the court system is a good step, but what is more important is addressing the issue of accountability. Over the course of my time in the court system, there have not been persons appointed within the system itself to positions of responsibility to make the necessary changes.

There needs to be someone to step in to say this cannot happen. Then we need to make sure to address the questions of where is the budget for this person, where are the personnel to assist in these efforts, and is there ongoing support for this person or office of accountability. Bias training cannot just be the flavor of the month.

For lawyers who are coming up through the system, and for those working with them, what advice would you give?

I am a firm believer in education. My daughter—who like me and my father before now sits on the bench as a judge—discussed with me how firsthand education and experience are paramount. Lawyers of color need to be able to sit in on the meetings with clients, hearing the discussions and questions asked. These lawyers need to be able to go into court and watch the interactions with judges and clients, and then be able to sit as a second chair when they are ready. This needs to be happening more than what I saw during my time on the bench.

This world is rapidly changing—just think of all the things that have happened in the last year. And while we need to keep up with these developments, I believe it is so important to understand legal history. What I mean is that it’s important to know about the legal history of discrimination in this country. The lessons of Shelby v. Holder and Brown v. Board of Education should be taught, as should understanding the Voting Rights Act and what redlining is. I think it’s imperative to truly know and understand that criminal justice reform is more than a talking point and includes bail reform, ending solitary confinement, and no-cash bail.

Thank you, judge, for your time. Any closing thoughts?

I am hopeful for the future, but a lingering fear is that people forget all that has happened and is happening, and go back to being comfortable.

If we don’t forget, and we keep focused on change, there will be continued recognition and ultimate follow-up and accountability.

Every single one of you can make a difference. It can be small or large. Every journey starts with the first step.