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Judge asks arab woman if terrorist { May 21 2003 }

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Tarrytown judge's remark sparks outrage

(Original publication: May 21, 2003)

TARRYTOWN An Arab-American woman who fainted in village court said she suffered an anxiety attack after the judge asked if she were a terrorist.

Anissa Khoder has filed a complaint against Tarrytown Village Justice William Crosbie with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Khoder went to court on Thursday to contest a pair of parking tickets. As she approached the judge's table, she said, Crosbie considered her name out loud and asked if she were a terrorist. She said she was stunned by the implication, but responded with a weak, reflexive smile.

"I felt offended, and I kept it to myself," she said, but then it got worse. After completing her explanation for why the tickets should be dismissed, she said the judge asked her, "You don't really want to pay these tickets, do you?"

"Then he said something like, 'You have money to support the terrorists, but you don't want to pay the ticket,' " Khoder said. "I could not believe I was hearing that."

She was unable to say anything in protest and, almost immediately, collapsed to the floor. A court officer and two Tarrytown police officers helped her and called for an ambulance, but Khoder soon recovered and declined medical attention.

Crosbie yesterday confirmed that he made the initial comment, asking Khoder if she were a terrorist, and acknowledged that it "may have been inappropriate." But he denied saying anything further regarding terrorism.

The 79-year-old judge, who was a village trustee and county legislator in the 1960s and 1970s, has previously been the center of controversy during his 16 years on the bench. His courtroom was secretly taped by village police during two 1987 sessions and, in 1989, he was censured by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for threatening not to arraign prisoners for police in neighboring North Tarrytown after they arrested a friend of his who was running for village office.

Khoder said she had appeared before Crosbie in the past, once while on jury duty and the other time to fight another parking ticket. She remembers he was anxious for the revenue from the ticket, but never would have predicted the statements he made last week.

The 46-year-old woman was born and raised in Lebanon and came to the United States 14 years ago after marrying her husband, Suleiman, in her native country. She said she is Muslim, but does not actively practice her religion. She became a U.S. citizen in 1993, has a 12-year-old son and is now studying at Westchester Community College with the hope of becoming a geriatric nurse. Her husband has lived in Tarrytown since 1962 and one of her stepsons, Hussein, is an Armonk resident and president of his neighborhood association. Hussein Khoder sent her complaint to the state commission, as well as copies to state and local officials.

He and his stepmother said Arab-Americans have faced enough of a backlash since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks not to have to worry about insensitive comments from a judge on the bench.

Zena Mikdadi, president of the American Muslim Women's Association, a nine-month-old group based in Dobbs Ferry, said she was disappointed in the judge.

"It is a great shame that a judge like him, an educated man, will make a statement like that," she said. "What are we going to expect from people on the street who don't know better?"

Court proceedings in Tarrytown are not recorded by a stenographer, and there was no transcript to confirm Khoder's account. The court clerk said she was in the office at the time, and the village prosecutor, Steve Bettman, said he was talking to a lawyer and heard only the commotion when Khoder fell to the ground. It was unclear how many people were in the courtroom or how many heard the exchange. Khoder said she did not know the people in the courtroom but was concerned about what they would think of her if they heard the judge's remarks.

She said the comments were of particular concern because they came from a judge, who must make impartial decisions.

"He has to judge me, not my name," she said. "I'm American. I love this country. It is my country. There's no Arabic music in my home. I have a 6-foot Christmas tree each year."

Both of Khoder's parking tickets were dismissed after she was helped from the courtroom. Crosbie said one of them was improperly issued, but he could not explain why he dismissed the second one.

Interviewed at his home yesterday, Crosbie said he could not recall the exact sequence of his exchange with Khoder. He said he thought he asked her if she were a terrorist when she moved toward his desk and seemed to wave her hands after giving her explanation about the tickets. He said that he did not find the movement threatening in any way and, when pressed about why he would bring up terrorism at that moment, said he wasn't sure.

"I was probably kidding with her in the beginning," Crosbie said. "Sometimes, you just pose that question to people. I don't know what I based it on."

Crosbie, a Republican, has been a village judge since 1987 and two months ago won a fifth term on the bench. In that election, and in the previous one in 1999, he ran without opposition. He served as a village trustee for five years in the 1960s and later for five years on the Westchester County Board of Legislators.

When he was censured in 1989, the commission concluded that Crosbie was "clearly attempting to use the power and prestige of judicial office for personal and political ends." In the taping incident, some police officers suggested it was an effort to run Crosbie off the bench, but the police chief at the time, who authorized the taping, said it was because he was concerned that Crosbie was dismissing traffic tickets without hearing from police officers who issued them.

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