Director’s Dialogue

Director's Dialogue—Fostering Diversity in the Legal Profession


by D. Larkin Chenault

There is no denying that our world is comprised of a variety of people—people of different races, ethnic backgrounds, gender, sexual orientation, and physical abilities, to name some examples. A variety of people also constitutes the legal profession. A large part of increasing public confidence in the fairness of the legal profession and the justice system involves ensuring that we, as a profession, are not allowing personal biases or prejudices to affect the treatment of people in the justice system and in our profession.

According to demographic trends compiled by the American Bar Association, by 2005, the workforce will be 73 percent white, 12 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian and other minorities, and women will make up 34.8 percent. By the year 2020, minorities will comprise 36 percent of all Americans. The future population will be composed of more older whites and younger minorities, and nontraditional families will proliferate.

All of these trends show the changing face of our society and our profession. It is our responsibility as lawyers and judges to ensure that justice is indeed blind—color blind and blind to any other differences that make us the unique individuals we are.

In conjunction with the State Bar’s Long Range Plan, the Bar established Goal VIII of its 10 Basic Goals in April 1996: The State Bar of Michigan shall support and improve the openness of the profession. The State Bar has made a commitment to addressing and eliminating bias and discrimination within the profession and has been proactive in these efforts.

In 1986, the Michigan Supreme Court Citizens’ Commission to Improve Michigan Courts concluded that over one-third of Michigan’s citizens believe the Michigan court system discriminates against individuals on the basis of gender, race or ethnic origin. The report called for further action, including the Court’s creation of the Task Force on Gender Issues in the Courts and the Task Force on Racial/Ethnic Issues in the Courts the following year. Their mission was to examine the courts and recommend changes to assure equal treatment for all, free from race or gender bias.

When the Task Forces’ reports were issued in 1989, they contained 167 recommendations to improve the quality of justice and eliminate bias and discrimination in the justice system and the profession. The State Bar created an Open Profession Department in 1990 to further oversee implementation of plans addressing these issues. In 1995, its name was changed to the

Open Justice Department. Department staff leaders have included Deborah Gaskin, Christine Moy, Nkruhmah Johnson-Wynn, and, currently, Lorraine Weber.

In 1996, the State Bar used the reports of the Task Forces and the recommendations they generated to take the next step in addressing these issues. That year, the State Bar of Michigan created its Task Force on Racial/Ethnic and Gender Issues in the Courts and the Legal Profession. The Task Force’s mission was to report on the status of the 1989 recommendations made by the Supreme Court Task Forces and to develop a strategy for implementing those recommendations and identifying new areas of concern.

In 1997, the State Bar unanimously adopted the Report of the Task Force on Racial/Ethnic and Gender Issues in the Courts and the Legal Profession. Special emphasis was placed in the Report on the creation of an implementation commission. In 1998, the State Bar’s Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the creation of the State Bar of Michigan Open Justice Commission, which was inaugurated at the State Bar’s 63rd Annual Meeting in September of that year. The Commission, which is co-chaired by Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly and Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Harold Hood, has as its mission the following objectives:

• Raise both public and professional awareness of open justice issues and the impact of race, ethnic origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation or disability on the fair delivery of justice in our state

• Reduce or eliminate such bias or invidious discrimination within the courts or legal profession

• Increase public confidence in the fairness of the legal profession and the equal application of law for all citizens

The State Bar, in partnership with many other organizations, has provided leadership by actively contributing time, energy and funding to the investigation and elimination of discrimination and bias in our profession. The work of the State Bar’s Open Justice Department and Open Justice Commission are an integral part of the Bar’s Long Range Plan. (Thirty-three projects have been adopted by the Open Justice Commission and approved by the Board of Commissioners for the 1999-2000 Bar year.) The Commission meets at least six times a year, and its meetings are open to the public. The work of the Commission is generally conducted by 10 substantive committees, each with a specific role and mission in ensuring that our justice system is open to all citizens. These committees are:

Access to Justice

This committee’s mission is to ensure that no person will be discriminated against or be denied access to any area of the justice system because of their race, ethnic origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, economic status, linguistic capacity, physical or mental disability or any other condition irrelevant to the rights of the parties.

Cultural Issues and Language Barriers

This committee’s mission is to identify bias and discrimination within the legal profession and the courts based upon cultural differences and language issues.

Disabilities

This committee’s mission is to identify the needs of persons with disabilities in utilizing the justice system and to make that knowledge available to members of the bar, judiciary, and the public.

Domestic Relations

This committee has a twofold mission: to implement the Michigan Supreme Court’s Task Force on Gender Issues in the Courts as they relate to domestic relations cases in the judicial and legal systems of our state, and to eliminate or reduce the effect of bias based on race/ethnic origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity in domestic relations cases.

Ethical Standards and Discipline

This committee’s mission is to review the judicial and legal system for education about and enforcement of ethics rules in the state, to determine the relative effectiveness of the system in view of the above stated goals and to make recommendations regarding any modifications the committee believes can lead to improvements of the system.

Juvenile Justice

This committee’s mission is to educate, motivate, and raise awareness about the impact of bias and discrimination on the juvenile justice system. Through this process, decision makers in the juvenile justice system will address issues related to the over-representation of minorities and females in the juvenile justice system; be able to identify, promote, and encourage participation in specific primary and secondary programs to prevent the entry of juveniles into the system; and identify specific actions the State Bar and its members can undertake to affect change throughout the state and in local communities.

Open Justice within the Court Environment

This committee’s mission is to design and implement programs specifically related to improving the courts of our state. These programs are focused on eliminating bias and discrimination in our court hearings; improving court administration standards that impact women, minorities, persons with disabilities and persons of diverse sexual orientation; and implementing projects to assure that all dispute resolution mechanisms are fair and unbiased in both their procedures and outcomes.

Professional Development and Opportunities

This committee’s mission is to develop programs to increase the professional opportunities for attorneys of color and female attorneys and increase their participation by these attorneys in the various aspects of the justice system and the State Bar of Michigan.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

This committee’s mission is to eliminate invidious discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the justice system and to educate and sensitize the justice system to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Violence and Criminal Justice Issues

This committee’s mission is to provide leadership within the criminal justice system to implement the recommendations of the 1989 Task Forces and the State Bar of Michigan Task Force and address urgent criminal issues resulting from bias and discrimination.

For the past five years, the State Bar’s Open Justice Department, in partnership with the Under-Represented Groups in the Law Committee, has sponsored an Opening Doors Conference. The Fifth Annual Opening Doors Conference was held on Saturday, October 30, 1999, in Novi. This Conference serves to explore the unique challenges facing under-represented groups in the law and celebrate the key role of minorities and women in the legal profession. It also provides an opportunity for new or inexperienced attorneys to network with seasoned practitioners. Harold D. Pope, President of the National Bar Association, served as keynote luncheon speaker at the event and discussed employment issues facing people of color and women in law today, outlining both the challenges and the opportunities.

The State Bar’s Open Justice Department, led by State Bar Consultant Lorraine Weber with the assistance of Senior Administrative Assistant Judy Hershkowitz, is effective in assisting the implementation of the Commission’s goals. Weber serves as a Special Advisor to and member of the Open Justice Commission and organizes the annual Opening Doors Conference. She has brought to the State Bar her strong commitment to open justice issues, having previously served as Executive Director for the Michigan Supreme Court Task Forces on Gender and Racial/Ethnic Issues in the Courts described earlier.

The Bar is proud of all the efforts being made—our own and those of other law-related groups—to ensure a justice system that is open to all. Addressing and eliminating the biases that may affect future generations of lawyers and judges and the people they represent helps to ensure the fundamental promise of our Constitution—equal justice for all.



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