Law firm accuses Allegheny Common Pleas judge of misconduct in 62 complaints | Pittsburgh City Paper

Law firm accuses Allegheny Common Pleas judge of misconduct in 62 complaints

A local public interest law firm has filed 62 complaints against a county judge, who it accuses of “impatient, undignified, and discourteous” behavior and bias against Black men, older people, and people with mental or behavioral health issues.

Anthony Mariani, the subject of the complaints, has been a common pleas judge in Allegheny County since 2005.

Dolly Prabhu, an attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center who filed the complaints, says the misconduct allegations come from reports compiled by a group of mostly-volunteer court watchers who observed Judge Mariani in his courtroom for more than a year. Prabhu says that when court watchers started regularly observing county courtrooms in early 2020, Mariani “stood out immediately as a particularly mean, abusive, bullying judge.”

click to enlarge Law firm accuses Allegheny Common Pleas judge of misconduct in 62 complaints
Illustration by Darya Kharabi
Abolitionist Law Center court watch sketch of Anthony Mariani

The complaints, submitted to the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania, request an investigation into Mariani’s alleged violations of at least six rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct. These rules require judges to avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety, and to perform judicial duties “impartially, competently, and diligently.”

Prabhu submitted such a high number of complaints in an attempt to demonstrate patterns of problematic behavior.

Jessie Allen, associate professor of judicial ethics at the University of Pittsburgh law school, tells Pittsburgh City Paper that, when considering judicial misconduct, it’s important to differentiate between occasional mistakes and persistent problems.

“Judges have a very hard job to do,” she says, “and are often facing people that you or I wouldn't particularly want to interact with. And so, I tend not to immediately want to damn a judge for saying something that, in hindsight, looks pretty inappropriate.”

In this case, Allen notes that although she has no independent knowledge of the allegations beyond the complaints, “what's alleged here is a long-running, definite pattern.” If the allegations are true, she says, “it strikes me as serious.”

The 62 complaints allege that Mariani regularly engages in several different patterns of judicial misconduct, including:

  • “Impatient, undignified and discourteous behavior towards defendants” that often also results in an alleged violation of the defendant’s right to be heard in court

  • Frequent “inappropriate comments” about Black men’s bodies

  • Recurring remarks about defendants’ ages that ALC says show bias against older defendants

  • A pattern of making “outdated and prejudicial comments” about people with mental and behavioral health concerns.

“I believe that if the Judicial Conduct Board conducts a thorough investigation into all of these complaints, it will be clear that he's not fit to serve as a judge,” says Prabhu.

“Impatient, undignified, and discourteous”

Almost every complaint alleges “impatient, undignified and discourteous behavior towards defendants,” which, the complaints allege led to the violation of defendants’ right to be heard in court.

The complaints report dozens of incidents of Mariani shouting at defendants, refusing them the right to speak, and telling defendants he doesn’t believe them. Several complaints involve Mariani allegedly mocking and laughing at defendants. Prabhu also tells City Paper that court watcher reports indicate Mariani will often “scream for several minutes straight.”

“Other judges, in my experience, do not do that,” Prabhu says.

One complaint details a March 31 hearing for a man who allegedly violated his parole by stealing $8 worth of food. Apparently, when the defense attorney explained that his client was just “hungry and poor,” Mariani said, “Oh please, don’t play that card.”

When the defendant raised his hand to speak, the complaint says “Mariani yelled, ‘Put your hand down! This isn’t a classroom!’” and that when the defendant later attempted to answer a question the judge had asked him, Mariani cut him off, saying, “Don’t answer! You can try to justify it but you can’t!”

Being heard in court is one of the most basic rights of due process for people accused of a crime, according to Allen. “If you're accused," she says, "you have a right to be heard in response to what the charges are.”

One complaint from December 2021 reads, “During this hearing, the defendant explained that she was 17 weeks pregnant. Judge Mariani yelled at the defendant and said he did not believe her. The judge then ordered a presentence report and postponed the hearing for three months,” sending the defendant back to Allegheny County Jail. (ACJ has been repeatedly sued for its alleged failure to provide appropriate care to pregnant people.)

“There's nothing you can say right in his courtroom,” Prabhu says, “if you choose to speak on your own behalf, he will find a way to punish you for it. … He doesn't like when people make excuses, and he also doesn't like when people take accountability for their mistakes.”

Comments on Black men’s bodies

At least 14 complaints involve Judge Mariani allegedly making inappropriate comments about Black men’s bodies, “usually referring to them as big and strong.” Several complaints allege that after commenting on a defendant’s perceived size and strength, Mariani went on to treat the defendants as though they were guilty, even in cases where charges had been withdrawn. In the complaints, Prabhu writes that she finds this alleged pattern of great concern because it “reflects a serious racial bias of perceiving Black men as more dangerous than others.”

Negative stereotyping is expressly prohibited in the Code of Judicial Conduct, Allen notes, as is “attempted humor based on stereotypes.”

Elderly bias

At least 18 complaints involve Mariani’s alleged bias against older defendants. Mariani allegedly often makes “disparaging comments about people’s ages," according to the complaints, to express his disapproval of their behavior or doubts about their sincerity.

In a December 2021 hearing, one complaint records Mariani saying of a younger defendant: “If he were an older person, it’d be easier to warehouse him because they’re older and won’t change their ways.”

“If you're above a certain age, or if he doesn't perceive you as young, he clearly has certain perceptions about whether or not these people are capable of changing or are deserving of another chance. And that really colors how he treats defendants, which is extremely concerning,” Prabhu says.

Mental illness prejudice

At least five complaints refer to Mariani allegedly “making outdated and prejudicial comments about individuals with mental health disabilities.” These complaints show Mariani allegedly pushing for more serious charges and harsher sentences for defendants with mental illnesses or behavioral health concerns, such as addiction.

“Some people claim to have mental health illnesses they don’t have,” Mariani allegedly said in a December 2021 hearing. “41 years ago no one mentioned bipolar, etc., all of a sudden, everyone’s bipolar. … They watered down the meaning of it.”

Prabhu says this alleged example demonstrates Mariani’s “huge misunderstanding about how mental illness manifests and when it manifests. It's unfortunate that he's so uneducated on the issue,” Prabhu tells CP. “These folks aren’t getting a fair trial.”

“I think the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of [mental health] treatment sentences instead of incarceration,” Mariani allegedly said at a January 2022 probation hearing in which he ordered the defendant be removed from his treatment program and sent to ACJ.

“He doesn't consider how prolonged repeated incarceration can impact folks' ability to get clean, to get to mental health treatment, to get their lives together,” Prabhu says, “or the fact that he is making it harder for them to succeed. Instead, he blames them like it's their personal willpower.”

More than 20 complaints document Mariani commenting about Allegheny County Jail, allegedly making light of the conditions there and suggesting that incarceration in the jail would have a positive impact on a defendant. For Prabhu, Mariani’s alleged comments about the jail are “really, really concerning.”

“He makes light of terrible human rights abuses going on in Allegheny County Jail,” Prabhu says. He allegedly refers to ACJ serving “green” or “slimy” bologna or "cat food" in several complaints.

“The fact that he thinks it's funny that defendants are given green baloney on slimy moldy bread, which is a phrase he loves to use, I mean, it's sadistic,” she says.

Gerald Thomas

Mariani already has an investigation request pending following the recent death of 26-year-old Gerald Thomas, who died while incarcerated, shortly after Mariani declined to release him when his charges were dropped.

Thomas' mother, Juana Saunders, who saw her son for the last time in Mariani’s courtroom, argues that Mariani’s alleged biases can have fatal consequences.

Saunders tells CP that when she entered Mariani’s courtroom for her son’s February hearing, she was hopeful Gerald was on his way home after more than a year of incarceration at ACJ because the charges against him had been dropped. Instead, she says, Mariani, whose demeanor was “very, very, very arrogant,” yelled throughout the hearing, making negative and racist assumptions about Gerald.

“Mariani went on with power-tripping,” Saunders says. “It was heartbreaking that he attacked everyone, pretty much, in that room with his power. He did what he wanted to do. Now my son is no longer with us, due to Mariani sending him back to jail for no reason,” Saunders says.

“I hold Mariani very responsible for my son’s death,” she wrote to the Judicial Conduct Board. “My son’s blood is on his hands. He needs to be taken off the bench if this is how he routinely behaves.”

Mariani’s office declined to comment for this story.

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