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August 10, 2007

ABA Leaders Urge Lawyers to Help Courts Reach Out to Communities, Cultures

“We live in a racist nation, and we are participants in what is still regrettably a racist legal system. We are the stewards of that system,” William H. Neukom, to become president of the _ at the close of this meeting, told members convened to hear another perspective on “Fair and Impartial Courts.”

Neukom challenged panelists and the audience to develop specific ideas for change, and urged them to look to multidisciplinary solutions, saying no one segment of society can move the nation forward alone. They responded by listing actions that judges could initiate to improve cultural understanding by courts of their communities, and what lawyers can do to promote understanding by the public about the courts.

Courts should be conveners, said Dana Cutler of Kansas City, urging that they reach out to law enforcement, social service agencies, religious groups, educators, parents, civil rights organizations and others, and launch dialogues about how the public perceives the courts. And the public needs to understand that courts will have an impact on their personal lives in some way, and that they need to care about how the courts work.

“If you don’t like what you see, speak up,” she said. She also urged diversification of court staffs, noting the clerk’s office may be the first place a citizen interacts with the court system.

Jimmie V. Reyna, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, said individual lawyers must take on the responsibility of upholding the courts and the Constitution. “We are the keepers of the law and it is our job to make sure the job continues to be done. If you are not doing it, turn in your license and do something else.”

He displayed a booklet titled “The Promise in the Law,” written in Spanish and English, which is being distributed to schools, libraries and community groups across the nation to explain fundamental principles of democracy—separation of powers, the roles of the three branches of government, the jury system, rights in criminal proceedings, voting and other areas.

“Anybody who tells you there is equal justice is lying to you,” said Stephen Saltzburg, chair of the ABA Commission on Effective Criminal Sanctions. “If you think our history is so much better than the rest of the world, you don’t know our history,” he said. Saltsburg spoke of sentencing disparities and the folly of “locking people up in meaningless prisons with meaningless sentences, saying “We’ve destroyed an entire generation of African-American males.”

John C. Yang, a past president of the National Asian Pacific _, urged judges to reach out to minority bar associations, and minority bar associations to respond to the judges. The minority bars can be an intermediary to the community, to help judges understand such cultural traits as averting your eyes as a sign of respect, not as an avoidance technique, he said.

Ernestine Gray, a juvenile court judge in New Orleans, urged courts to print their written materials in languages other than English, and to increase access to interpreters. But she noted courts often do not have adequate resources to implement reforms. They need to capture data to buttress their position in seeking resource increases, she said.