Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres is not re-appointing longtime municipal court judge Kevin McDuffie who has been described as a “firm” and “fair” judge.
Torres’s office said he exercised his statutory right under state law to appoint a municipal court judge. He has appointed municipal prosecutor Dawn Blakely-Harper as McDuffie’s replacement on the Paterson Municipal Court. His office said Torres “feels that Mrs. Blakeley-Harper can bring a fresh perspective to the bench.”
A dozen people protested McDuffie’s removal at the City Council on Tuesday night.
“Judge McDuffie is no stranger to this community. He has been a great example to the community. He has served his community over ten years,” said Jerry Wilder, pastor of the Grace and Restoration Fellowship Church on Broadway. “Out of six of the municipal judges he was the only one not re-appointed.”
Torres has re-appointed the other municipal court judges — Abdelmageid “John” Abdelhadi, Jeremias Batista, Cecelia Guzman, Gerard Keegan, Giuseppe Randazzo – for fresh three-year terms.
McDuffie’s term expires on May 28th, 2017.
“We’re not unsympathetic to your quest. The council has advice and consent capacity,” replied Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large. He explained the council votes yes or no on judges appointed by the mayor. “That doesn’t preclude him from removing a judge. He can remove a judge and keep that seat vacant until he makes a recommendation to the council. The council can’t take any action to prevent judge McDuffie from being removed.”
Torres’ office found fault with characterizing the non-re-appointment of McDuffie as removing the judge. His office invoked the mayor’s right to appoint a judge when the term of a judge expires. “If you’re not re-appointing someone, you’re essentially removing them,” said Morris on Tuesday night.
Morris said the council can hold off acting on any of the six re-appointments and appointment until the mayor provides an explanation for removing McDuffie. He recognized that would be an exercise in “futility” because the mayor can holdover judges until the council decides to approve them. This means, the re-appointments can continue to serve as holdovers, but McDuffie would be removed from the bench.
“Part of the issue is that judge McDuffie is a strong willed African-American male,” said Morris. He said sometimes that can make people “uncomfortable.” After Torres returned for a third term in 2014, there was somewhat of a disconnect between the longtime judge and the mayor, according to officials.
“I do know he’s fair,” said Morris. His other colleagues also gave similar description of the longtime judge.
“He was a strong and fair judge in the community,” said Alex Mendez, councilman at-large.
“I can attest to the integrity of judge McDuffie. He’s fair and he’s also firm,” said Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman.
“We’re limited,” said Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman. He said the judge served with “excellence” and “professionalism.”
Luis Velez, 5th Ward councilman, asked what will be the future of the judge in the city. “Will he go back to being a prosecutor at the city of Paterson?” asked Velez.
“I don’t know how to answer that question,” said law director Domenick Stampone. Blakely-Harper’s appointment to the bench creates a vacancy within the Law Department. He said personnel decisions are in the hand of the mayor.
“He’s what you need as a judge. He’s stern and fair. He goes by the book,” said Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman. “I hope this doesn’t divide our community. I would hate to be pitted against each other like that.”
In this case, the mayor is replacing McDuffie, an African-American, with Blakely-Harper, who also hails from the same community.
Wilder said he is advocating for both McDuffie and Blakely-Harper. He played down any suggestion this will cause a rift in the city’s African-American community.
“There is no discord between myself and judge McDuffie,” said Blakely-Harper. McDuffie has been a judge in the municipal for over a decade.
Torres first appointed him to the bench.
McDuffie, who resides in Paterson, grew up in the Alexander Hamilton Public Housing Projects also known as the Alabama Projects, said his pastor.