Saturday, September 28, 2013

Georgia Lawyers Call for a More Accountable Judiciary

Americans have seen too many cases like those of Rodney King, Abner Louima, Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin and other young, whose attackers have escaped convictions or escaped just sentences for their crimes because those who have administered justice have not been accountable to the communities they serve.  How many times will we be asked to remember, march, say to ourselves “what a shame” and then do nothing else?  We have a chance to do something that can change what justice looks like for our community.  

On November 2, 2013, several African American bar associations, including Advocacy for Action, the Gate City Bar Association, the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys (GABWA), the Dekalb Lawyers Association (DLA), the New Rock Legal Society, the Augusta Conference of African American Attorneys (ACAA), and the Howard Law School Alumni, are coming together to sponsor a symposium about the need for Diversity on the Bench, at Big Bethel Church. We will discuss the issue of the lack of diversity on the bench, the impact on the community and how our vote and voice in the upcoming elections in 2014 can help to ensure that Georgia does not experience the sort of injustice that took place in the cases of King, Louima, Grant, and Martin. 

We believe that, to be accountable, the bench must be populated with highly qualified individuals who are representative of the communities that they serve.  Judicial diversity promotes impartiality by ensuring that no one viewpoint, perspective, or set of values can persistently dominate legal decision making.  As Judge Richard Posner has observed, a diverse judiciary “is more representative, and its decisions will therefore command greater acceptance in a diverse society than would the decisions of a mandarin court. Judge James Wynne has noted that a lack of diversity poses a significant challenge for a judicial system that passes judgment on issues affecting African-Americans, women and other minorities.

The State’s historic progress in the direction of a representative judiciary has stalled and, in some cases, it has been reversed.

Federal Judicial Appointments

The State’s federal courts provide an instructive example.  While African-Americans comprise over 31% of the State’s population, they comprise only 19% of the State’s active federal judges.  Out of the thirty-five (35) judges who have been appointed in the Northern District of Georgia since the court’s inception in 1948, only three have been African-American.  At any given time, the Court has had only one full-time African-American Judge. Each judge was appointed only after the retirement of the retirement of another active African-American Judge.  There has never been an African-American female appointed to this court or other federal court in Georgia.

State Judicial Appointments

The need for judicial diversity is equally keen in the Georgia’s state-level trial courts.  While the Georgia Constitution provides for an elected judiciary, it also empowers the Governor to fill mid-term vacancies and, consequently, the overwhelming majority of judges in the State - including in the Fulton County Superior Court - reach the bench through gubernatorial appointment.

In 1988, six (6) of the 137 Superior Court judges in the State’s 45 judicial circuits were African-American.  As a result of litigation by Representative Tyrone Brooks, Governor Miller decided to appoint several outstanding African-American judges to the Courts of the State.  For the first time in history, the judiciary began to reflect the diversity of State.    Governor Barnes who succeeded Governor Miller also made diverse judicial appointments to the judiciary and by 2002, eight (8) of the 18 judges on the Superior Court of Fulton County, or 44%, were African-American.

This has all changed. Over the past decade, the Fulton County Superior Court has experienced a steady erosion in racial diversity.  In the last decade, not one African-American attorney has been appointed to the Fulton County Superior Court bench.  Instead, every vacancy which has occurred as a result of resignation or retirement has been filled with a white appointee.  The last African-American female judge was appointed to the Fulton County Superior Court bench in 1996, and the last African-American male judge was appointed in 2002. 

The recent erosion in judicial diversity is certainly not due to a lack of qualified African-American candidates.  Fulton County is home to most of the State’s several hundred African-American lawyers. Over the years, these lawyers have included the first African American woman to be admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the lawyers who led the battles to desegregate the State’s universities, public schools and places of public accommodation.

A Call to Action

We are rapidly reaching a point at which the notion of a judiciary comprised of the best and brightest legal minds regardless of race will be no more than a bygone memory due to an appointment process which favors one ethnic group to the exclusion of all others.  The justice system belongs to the people, after all, and they should be encouraged to take on a more significant role in selecting those who administer justice on their behalf.  At the State level, the voters have a meaningful role to play, and they should be encouraged to take that role seriously.

That is why the attorneys, judges and the public are invited to hear from panelists such as National Action Network President Reverend Al Sharpton, Senior Pastor of Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, State Representative Tyrone Brooks (D), U.S. Representative Hank Johnson (D)  State Representative, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D), Retired Fulton County Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings, Civil and Human Rights Activist Reverend Markel Hutchins, Radio Talk Show Host and Activist Derrick Boazman, Noted Attorney Mawuli Davis and others.  Together we can become advocates by using our vote to elect a diverse state judiciary and our voice can speak out about the lack of diverse appointees to the federal court.  We need to do so before we end up marching for justice for another young man such as Rodney King, Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin.  We must not let our votes or our voices go unheard.  We must become Advocates for Action for a diverse and representative judiciary in Georgia. Join the Conversation On Justice.  

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