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Barbara Merriweather Sims, trailblazer whose judicial career ended in controversy, dies

Barbara Merriweather Sims, a legal trailblazer and lifelong advocate for civil rights whose judicial career ended under a cloud in 1984, has died at age 94, according to Mayor Byron W. Brown.

Judge Sims was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Buffalo Law School, to serve as an assistant district attorney in Erie County and to serve as a Buffalo city judge.

In announcing her death on Twitter, the mayor said, "Buffalo has lost a true pioneer today."

"She fought for civil rights, against housing discrimination & to advance the rights of women," he said. "Judge Sims' legacy will live on in the hearts of those whose lives she touched."

Her judicial career ended in 1984 when she was removed from the bench by the State Court of Appeals following charges of misconduct. According to the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, Judge Sims signed orders in 10 cases involving clients or former clients of herself or her husband, onetime City Judge William Sims.

During the investigation, she was accused of releasing from custody, on no bail, 10 clients who were represented by her husband. She was also accused of signing an arrest warrant for a person who had been involved in a traffic accident with her son, but those charges were dismissed.

Judge Sims was barred from ever holding judicial office in the state again. She contested the ruling and maintained that she did nothing wrong, appealing the decisions to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected her case.

Judge Sims attempted to enter the Democratic primary for City Court in 1988, but was disqualified. Her husband ran in her place and lost, but appealed, unsuccessfully, because 2,100 absentee ballots were sent out without his name on them.

Judge Sims was born in Buffalo on Oct. 28, 1923, a daughter of Frank and Carmelita Merriweather. Frank Meriweather founded the weekly Buffalo Criterion newspaper in 1925 and operated it for more than 50 years. She graduated from the former Hutchinson Central High School, then studied to be a teacher at Buffalo State Teachers College.

In 1952, she earned the highest score on the citywide teachers' examination, placing first on the list of qualified applicants, according to her official biography. She taught for four years as a primary reading teacher at School 75 on Monroe Street, applying for law school while holding that job.

After graduating from law school in 1955, Judge Sims entered private legal practice with her husband in the firm of Sims and Sims.

In 1964, she was recruited to join the Office of the District Attorney of Erie County, becoming the first African-American woman to serve as an assistant district attorney in Erie County.

She served in that office for four years before being fired in March of 1968 by then-District Attorney Michael F. Dillon after she clashed with him over the prosecution of a 22-year-old cleaning woman. The young woman was charged with assisting Winston Moseley, who escaped in Western New York after being convicted of the sensational murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens in 1964. Sims opposed the prosecution of the cleaning woman and, according to Flynn, told a Buffalo Police officer in the courthouse that the case against the woman was based on racism.

She attempted to oppose Dillon in the Democratic primary in 1969, but her petitions were disqualified for lacking the needed number of signatures. She ran unsuccessfully on the Liberal ticket.

Judge Sims was an active member of the Women's Lawyers Association, serving as president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer. She was also national vice president for the National Association of Black Women Attorneys.

She became a hearing officer in the City of Buffalo's Parking Violations Bureau and accepted an invitation to teach in UB's Law School.

In 1970, she was appointed an assistant to the president of UB for minority and women's affairs. She also served as the director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and UB's Equal Employment Officer.

She later left UB and went to work in the law offices of Robinson, Sims, Gibson and Green. In 1977, she was appointed associate judge of the City Court of Buffalo and won that post in 1978. While running for that office, she stressed the importance of having women on the bench.

"Women's input is vital. It adds balance," she said.

Her husband was appointed a city judge in 1966 but lost in the next election. He was the first African-American to serve as a city judge.

During her career, she was given more than 50 awards, including the Kenneth David Kaunda Award for humanism by the Pan-African Association at the United Nations. Judge Sims acted as counsel to the local NAACP, representing clients in civil rights lawsuits, including housing and employment discrimination, as well as criminal matters.

In April 1992, she was charged with noncriminal harassment for throwing water out the window of her Humboldt Parkway law office, dousing a Buffalo police officer who was knocking at the door after a call reporting "neighbor trouble." Judge Sims said she apologized for the incident on the spot. The case was dismissed in August 1992 because the District Attorney's Office failed to bring it to trial within the required time.

Judge Sims had a daughter and a son, but a complete list of survivors and planned services was not available Wednesday.

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