Chief Judge Janet DiFiore demanded a public apology from the leader of the state court officers union after a demonstration in which members wore T-shirts calling OCA the Organized Crime Association.
The decision by DiFiore, New York’s first Italian-American chief judge, to intervene in the dispute is unprecedented in her almost three years as chief judge.
“The public display by court personnel, on or off duty, of a message that invokes and perpetuates vile and insidious ethnic stereotypes—whether, as here, directed at an Italian-American or at any other group of people who historically have been subjected to such discriminatory tactics—is simply malicious and offensive,” she wrote in a letter to Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association.
The Oct. 23 demonstration at a celebration of Hispanic heritage at the courthouse at 60 Centre St. has angered Italian-American groups. More than 40 leaders representing every Italian-American association in the country plan to issue a joint letter of protest on Friday.
“There’s an Italian word basta—enough,” said John Calvelli, vice chair of the National Italian American Foundation, which is drafting the letter. “Italian-Americans have literally turned the other cheek but at some point, we have to step up and say enough.”
Other organizations joined the Italian-American organizations in decrying the protest. They include the Latino Judges Association, the Columbian Lawyers Association, the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission and the Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission.
In a response Wednesday to DiFiore, the state Court Officers Association and the state Supreme Court Officers Association called her accusation that the officers were attacking Italian-Americans “outrageous and totally false” and said the slogan was a play on the words “Office of Court Administration.” They criticized her “continued refusal to address the severe staffing shortages that endanger everyone who works in our court system.”
“We will not apologize for exercising our constitutional rights for bringing to the public’s attention our concerns for public safety in the nation’s busiest court system,” Quirk and Pat Cullen, president of the Supreme Court Officers Association, said in the letter.
Michael Miller, president of the New York State Bar Association, said the slogan is most definitely an ethnic slur.
“When the term ‘organized crime’ is used in connection with an Italian-American, the meaning is as obvious as it is offensive,” he said. “Respect and civility are hallmarks of our judicial system—especially when we disagree. We are shocked and disappointed that individuals who play an important role in the operations of our courts would engage in such actions.”
Lucian Chalfen, director of communications for the court system, called the chief judge a tireless supporter of the state’s 4,000 court officers.
“We have been aware and are addressing staffing numbers that are not where we would like them, even with the 600 officers that have been hired since she became the chief judge in January 2016,” he said. But, he noted, 380 officers from three new classes of recruits will be assigned to the courts by next spring.
“While New York City has a long and storied history of zealous advocacy by unions for their members, a line is crossed when race, gender or ethnicity enters the conversation and is used disparagingly,” he said. “Making it personal and alluding to the chief judge, who is clearly of Italian-American heritage, by calling the judicial branch of government that she oversees an Organized Crime Association, is playing on offensive and outmoded ethnic stereotypes.”
Read DiFiore’s letter:
Read Quirk’s and Cullen’s reply: