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GOVERNMENT WATCH

DUI Judge: Two Drinks Preceded Racial Insults

Jon Lender

Government Watch

February 8, 2009

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The judge who called a state trooper racial names such as "Negro trooper" during her October drunken-driving arrest told a state panel Jan. 26 that she had one beer and one mixed drink more than three hours before her blood alcohol level tested at twice the legal limit.

Superior Court Judge E. Curtissa Cofield said that she's "committed to continuing this ministry" on the bench, and that her actions will "preserve the integrity and independence of the judiciary," according to a transcript of a closed-door hearing on Jan. 26 at which the Judicial Review Council opted to pursue five misconduct charges against her.

Several of the charges were based on what was termed disparaging, demeaning, or "racially inappropriate" language. She used racial terms such as "n-----" in a video of her booking at Glastonbury police headquarters. She argued with state police Sgt. Dwight Washington — who, like Cofield, is black — and called him "Mr. Negro Washington."

At the Jan. 26 hearing, Cofield's lawyer argued unsuccessfully against the council's release of the video later that day. Cofield apologized for "my unrecognizable conduct," the transcript shows. But she also bemoaned public reaction, including what she called "weapons of misdirection" suggesting "that I am a racist."

The Jan. 26 transcript, obtained via a freedom of information request, previews arguments likely to arise Monday — this time in public — at a hearing by the council at 10 a.m. in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

The council must decide if Cofield broke the judicial code of conduct and, if so, whether to discipline or suspend her, or refer her to the state Supreme Court for possible removal.

Among Cofield's sworn statements in the 49-page Jan. 26 hearing transcript:

•All she had to drink on Oct. 9 at the Hook & Ladder Restaurant in Hartford was one beer and one "probably very generous" mixed drink. She was with friends, including law enforcement officials. "I felt fine," she testified under oath. "And no one said, 'How do you feel? You don't look well.'" More than three hours later, a urine test showed her blood alcohol level at 0.17 percent, twice the legal limit of 0.08. Her lawyer, Raymond Hassett, said Cofield is "unsure" whether the mixed drink was "the equivalent of multiple drinks."

•"I'm shocked and dismayed by my unrecognizable conduct," which she called "an aberration resulting from imprudent consumption of alcohol. ... I consider myself an infrequent social drinker who failed to practice what I preach that night, which is don't drink and drive. And there's no excuse for my poor judgment."

•"What most hurts me are the weapons of misdirection that claim I am a racist. I think that that, more than anything else, is very painful to me. ... I worked all my life growing up in the segregated South. By the time I realized what segregation was, I was about age 12. I make sure that everyone received equal rights, regardless of ... sexual orientation, gender or race."

The phrase "weapons of misdirection" was used prominently in 2006 at Coretta Scott King's funeral by the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights leader. He said: "We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. "But Coretta knew, and we know, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more, but no more for the poor!"

Hassett said that Cofield "adamantly denies any racial animus or abuse of her power."

Cofield was confirmed by legislators in 1991 as the state's first black female judge, after Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. nominated her. Her current term expires on June 6, 2015.

On Oct. 9 about 10:45 p.m., Cofield sideswiped a parked state police car, occupied by a trooper, with her BMW in a construction zone on Route 2 in Glastonbury. She later was accepted into an alcohol education program that can bring dismissal of the charges of DUI and failure to drive in the proper lane.

On the police video:

•Cofield asked Washington: "Do you have a reading on my urine test, Negro trooper?"

•She refused to sign a form and said: "I'm not signing anything, because when it comes down to the bottom line, who's smarter, me or you? We'll figure it out, won't we?"

•"I'm sick of being treated like a freaking Negro from the 'hood," she said. Asked if she had an illness and needed medication, Cofield said, "Negro-itis" and "I need to take anti-Negro, ummm ..."

A police report on the incident says that "Judge Cofield stated that she was the most intelligent person in the room and threatened our careers. ... While speaking on her cellphone, Judge Cofield referred to Sgt. Washington as the 'Head n----- in charge.'"

At the Jan. 26 hearing, Judicial Review Council Chairman Ross Garber asked Cofield if she recalled "telling the police on the night of your arrest that you were coming from the community court?"

"Yeah. I was intoxicated at that point," she said. "I wasn't drinking at community court, believe me. ... I had left the court at 7 and gone to the bar to meet my friends."

•Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on govern- ment and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115.