Op-Ed

Florida trailing on diversity in the courtroom

TNS

Florida is fortunate to be one of the most diverse states in the country, and that is a big reason why so many people choose to call it home. But a recent report by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy in Washington, D.C., found that our judicial system can better reflect the citizens it serves.

The report, which examined how closely judges mirror the race and ethnicity of the people who make up each state’s population, ranked Florida 35th with respect to minority representation and 21st with regard to gender diversity. In fact, of Florida’s state judges, about 82 percent are white and 31 percent are female. According to the report, since 2011, of the 241 judges appointed to the state bench, just 42 of the appointees were minorities and only 89 were female.

This is a critical issue, and it isn’t just limited to our state judiciary. It is also present in our legal profession as a whole.

According to the National Association for Legal Placement, minorities accounted for 27 percent of all legal graduates in 2014 yet the percentage of minority attorneys practicing at a large law firm in 2015 was just less than 14 percent. If you look closer and examine leadership roles, minority attorneys represent just 7.5 percent of law partners in Florida. Women don’t fare much better; the NALP data shows that only 21.5 percent of partners are women and only 17.4 percent are equity partners.

As attorneys and as judges, we make a choice to serve the citizens of our state because we see the positive impact that we can make in our communities and in the lives of the people who need us most.

Every day that we go to work, we actively choose to honor and uphold the values and the principles of both our judicial and legal systems. Those systems were built on a foundation of trust and confidence. They were established to uphold the rule of law, and the freedoms promised and protected by our democracy, and we are accountable for ensuring that remains true.

But how can we expect people to trust those systems if they don’t feel they are being fairly represented? How can we ask them to have faith in a system that doesn’t accurately reflect them or their communities?

Fortunately, many in our profession and community recognize the challenges that remain and are actively working to overcome them — both by recognizing the disparity that exists within our justice system and committing whole-heartedly to changing the demographics. The results are already being seen and the positive impacts felt.

Through the Bar’s Wm. Reece Smith Jr. Leadership Academy, the legal profession’s leadership ranks are becoming more diverse. Founded by the Bar’s first African-American president, Eugene Pettis, in 2013, the program was created with the goal of pipelining a more diverse leadership through mentorship, training and immersive education.

The program has already graduated more than 160 attorneys, including Ft. Lauderdale attorney Antonya Johnson, president of Virgil Hawkins Chapter of the National Bar Association; Ft. Lauderdale attorney Jay Kim, the first Asian-American elected to The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors; Tampa attorney Vivian Cortes-Hodz, president of Tampa Bay Hispanic Bar; West Palm Beach attorney Leora Freire, president of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers; and newly elected Board of Governors Member and Tallahassee attorney, Melissa VanSickle.

The Florida Bar’s Committee on Diversity & Inclusion has already in 2015-16 funded more than 30 diversity programs at local and specialty bar associations that are working within their respective communities to create a more tolerant, diverse and inclusive justice system. For example, the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of South Florida hosted a workshop designed to assist and educate minorities in the local community, particularly those who have trouble reading or writing in English. Similarly, the Caribbean Bar Association and T.J. Reddick Bar Association last year hosted a series of events across South Florida geared to address the struggle to maintain diversity on the bench and across our profession and how it impacts the community's perception of the legal system.

When we read things that trouble us, we have a choice to be passive observers or to become active participants towards change. By working together to foster a more diverse leadership on our benches, in our law firms and throughout the communities that form the fabric of Florida, we can keep progress moving forward.

We are already taking steps to diversify the ranks of our profession so that we can be proud to have a system that benefits and represents both today’s generation and future generations to come.

William J. Schifino, Jr. is an attorney in Tampa and president of The Florida Bar.

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