Our Founders sought to protect federal judges from the whims of the mob by granting them life tenure, and making them removable only through impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate. But the mob has its ways of exacting retribution even so.
The latest victim is Judge Cormac J. Carney of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles. His crime? Referring to the court’s clerk, Kiry Gray, as “street-smart.”
Gray is a 35-year employee of the court. In 2015, she became the first black woman to serve as a clerk of court in the Ninth Circuit, which covers the western part of the United States, including California. As clerk, she is in charge of the day-to-day administration and operations of the court.
Carney has been a federal judge in the nation’s largest federal court since 2003. On June 1, he began a term as chief judge of the court, a position with substantial management and oversight responsibilities for the entire court, including the district judges, the magistrate judges, the clerk’s office, and probation. The position requires a close working relationship with the clerk.
In a webinar that took place eight days after he assumed his duties as chief judge, Carney spoke to members of the California bar about how he was adjusting to his new role. “Fortunately for me,” he reportedly said, “we have just a fabulous clerk of the court in Kiry Gray. She’s so street-smart and really knows her job.”
According to the L.A. Times, several court staffers and attorneys were upset by the remark, which they interpreted as having a “derogatory and racially insensitive layer.” Upon learning that some people were calling for his removal, Carney says he spoke with Gray and expressed frustration that “the people criticizing me were equating my well-intended use of the term ‘street-smart’ with the reprehensible conduct of a police officer putting his knee on a person’s neck.” On Friday, he publicly apologized and announced that he would be stepping down as chief judge, though he will remain a judge on the court.
Putting aside the interaction Carney had with Gray after the webinar, it is clear that Carney intended his original statement as an expression of high regard. Indeed, “street-smart” seems a perfectly appropriate way to describe someone such as Gray, who, without a college degree, began as a temp coding jury questionnaires at night, worked hard, learned fast, and, ultimately, rose through the ranks to the highest administrative position in the courthouse. In ordinary times, the comment would have been understood as respectful.
But we do not live in ordinary times. We live in what Andrew Sullivan warns is a “revolutionary moment,” one that requires almost daily “public confessions of iniquity by those complicit in oppression.”
To our modern-day revolutionaries, that oppression comes not just from restraints on liberty, but from ordinary words and phrases such as “street-smart,” which they, in their infinite wisdom, designate as offensive. These self-appointed language police then take their pound of flesh from those unlucky enough to use the offending language.
Carney is now one of those victims, undone by an innocent compliment. And, of course, he never saw the mob coming. How could he have when, as Sullivan notes, the ground is constantly shifting, and “words that were one day fine are now utterly reprehensible”?
Because our Founders had the foresight to give federal judges life tenure, Carney will at least get to remain on the bench. But until our nation’s leaders — and particularly those liberals who claim to embrace Enlightenment principles and the free exchange of ideas — stand up and speak out against the mob, no one will be safe from this American reign of terror.