When this pandemic wanes – and it will, eventually – a sense of normalcy will return, and I hope this profession will return to a focus on safety and inclusion.
The evaluation of court security for the public, litigants, and court personnel has been put on hold, but the issue of inclusion has remained at the fore. Let me take a moment to remind you of a piece of our history.
In 1770, a group of citizens gathered, demanding discipline for soldiers, who then fired into a crowd. A lawyer by the name of Adams stepped forward to represent those soldiers. And yet, a cousin of that lawyer fomented sentiment for the crowd and dubbed the incident “The Boston Massacre.” We moved from a colony to a nation.
Among the first killed in that demonstration was a black man, Crispus Attucks, a man born to an African father and a Native American mother and who escaped slavery to become a seaman. Nearly 200 years later, a preacher born in Georgia, working in Alabama, and speaking in Memphis the day before his death, said, “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
We in Missouri must remain mindful of our justice system’s failings, from its treatment of Dred Scott and Lloyd Gaines in centuries past to more recent abuses. A new era of urgency for change in our justice system has been ushered in by the untimely death of those for whom the opportunity for justice ended on the streets.
A recent poll of more than 600 judges nationwide asked whether they believe systemic racism exists in the criminal justice system. A staggering 65 percent responded yes. For those who accuse judges of being out of touch with their communities, surely this is evidence that they are not. They too have witnessed demonstrations, destruction and death in cities large and small across America as part of a national movement some have compared with a call for a third reconstruction.
We have been forced to acknowledge there still is not equal treatment of African Americans and people of color in our justice system. Like it or not, the issue of race and racial disparity in our profession is undeniable, although its full impact is yet to be seen. We need to be open and honest in our conversations to make our profession and our society more inclusive.
Last year, I spoke to you of inequalities in the judicial evaluation process. This year, let me direct your attention to a Missouri Lawyers Weekly piece in late July hailing “The Power 30” among certain civil attorneys – a prestigious group, but including only four women and zero minorities of any ethnic or racial group.
The need for diversity, inclusion and a real understanding of racial bias that divides and threatens our communities, our industries and our democracy is imperative. Our state constitution promises that our courts are open and accessible to all. Recent events force us to see our courts through the lens of the oppressed and to ask ourselves what kind of culture we are establishing in our courts and legal community. So, I am asking that we look within, take a holistic view of our entire profession, truly listen to and see one another, and find ways we can do better.
That preacher I spoke of earlier also said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Our society is on a precipice, with so many Americans crying out to be heard, demanding reforms be made so they all can be treated equally, with the respect and dignity to which they are entitled under the law, but which they have not always been given.
Life is about choices, and I choose to stand before you an optimist, believing that the rallying cry of the people will be heard, that we can right wrongs of the past, and that we can build a more tolerant world for those who will follow.
In Missouri, our bench and bar are taking steps to build a more inclusive legal system. That work began in earnest when our fellow attorney, former Kansas City Mayor Sylvester “Sly” James Jr., encouraged law firms to sign a pledge to increase minority practitioners in their organizations. His work sparked a statewide effort, and now your Missouri Bar has established a special committee on lawyers of color in the profession.
As the Bar noted, diversity in the legal profession means equality of opportunity to practice law in a position of influence throughout society. Equality for all requires everyone to have a seat at the table and a voice in developing and administering the rules that govern our society. It is my hope for people of color to be as overrepresented in our professions as they are in our prisons.
This new committee is about action – its charge is to recommend specific actions the Bar can take in the next 12 to 24 months to increase the retention, promotion, and advancement of minority lawyers in Missouri.
You see, for change to be accomplished, a true shift in paradigm must occur, and action must be taken. I hope each and every attorney keeps an open mind in approaching the continuing legal education requirements of Rule 15.05 mandating training about eliminating implicit bias. We have to flatten the curve of prejudice, so the department of justice someday is not just a namesake of a division of the federal government but a reality in which everyone in our society can believe. A culture of respect and fairness, and a justice system in which all persons are truly equal under the law, is a far better dream for 2021 and beyond than the nightmare 2020 has thrust upon us.
Waking from a nightmare makes us thankful for what we do have. I am thankful the institution in which I serve is celebrating its 200th birthday this year. From this Court’s pronouncement “once a slave, always a slave” to the six colleagues I am proud to call friends today, our entire judicial branch has made much progress over the past 200 years.
And so, to all, stay healthy and well, and may you prosper in our great profession of service.
Excerpted from the address given by George W. Draper III, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, on September 16 during the first joint annual meeting of The Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri to be held virtually, due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.