Magnus Discrimination Trial Update: Judge Considering Sanctions Against Plaintiffs' Lawyer for Racially Insensitive Comments

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The judge presiding over a racial discrimination case against Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus has altered courtroom procedure because an attorney, who is representing the seven black police officers accusing Magnus of discrimination, made racially insensitive comments to a member of the defense team.

Judge Barry Goode ordered the courtroom be closed and locked during lunch breaks because plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Jaffe called a Latino member of the defense team a “chihuahua.” The judge is considering possible sanctions against Jaffe, who is a middle-aged white male.

The plaintiffs, all high-ranking officers, are suing both the city of Richmond and Chief Magnus over claims that Magnus made racial jokes and refused to promote them — despite the fact Magnus promoted at least two of the plaintiffs, has promoted more women and people of color than any other Richmond police chief, and is widely considered to be politically progressive.

According to a defense motion, Jaffe had made several derogatory comments to defense assistant Joaquin Elizondo over the past two weeks. According to Elizondo’s sworn declaration, Jaffe had also called him an “asshole” and a “guard dog.”

On Tuesday, as the attorneys were exiting the courtroom for lunch, Jaffe turned to Elizondo and said “there you go, Joaquin, you get to leave now — the guard chihuahua.” According to the declaration, Elizondo said he recognized the term “chihuahua,” a small guard dog named for a Mexican state of the same name, as a derogatory remark for someone of Latino decent.

Jaffe said there was nothing racial about his comments and that he was unaware the term was derogatory or even that Elizondo was Latino. Jaffe justified his insensitive comments by saying there had been tension in the courtroom during the course of what has been a long trial and that Elizondo had followed the plaintiffs around the town of Martinez, where the trial is being held, during lunch breaks.

The judge said he was concerned that Jaffe had not apologized for the remarks and reminded him that it is important for attorneys in such a high profile case to take the high road.

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