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Judges decree: On diversity, we’re not there yet

Judges’ chambers across the Carolinas these days are home to a more diverse crowd than before, varying, of course, from one jurisdiction to the next.

But a group of jurists who spoke with Lawyers Weekly echoed a very similar sentiment: We’re better than before, but not as good as we need to be.

“We are in a much better place today than we were 20 years ago even, when I started my practice as a lawyer,” said Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judge Carla Archie, one of three African-American judges in her district. She is also one of three female judges. “We’re also doing a bit better on the female front, but we’ve got quite a bit of room to grow.”

Especially, Archie noted, “the higher up you go.”

Statistics suggest she’s right. Of the 15 North Carolina Court of Appeals judges, only one, Judge Wanda Bryant, is black. Her peers are more gender-diverse, consisting of nine white men and five white women.

Percentage-wise, North Carolina’s Supreme Court is a much more diverse group. Of the seven justices, two are black and three are female.

Justice Michael Morgan, a former Wake County Superior Court judge, was elected to the high court last year. He applauded the increase in race and gender diversity on the bench across much of the state, but agreed with Archie that it is not entirely reflective of the population it serves.

“You do see in certain pockets of the state, areas of marked improvement in terms of diversity, both racial and gender,” he said. “But on the other hand, of course, there are still those areas of the state where there is much room for growth to have our courts more directly reflect the diversity that our state continues to enjoy.”

Just south of the state line, in York County, Rock Hill solicitor Chisa Putman on March 8 will become just the second black woman to serve as a county magistrate. The county currently employs 11 magistrates, but she and fellow newcomer, former Carolina Panther and sheriff’s deputy Michael Scurlock, will be the only two African-Americans.

Putman said that in municipal and family courts she has seen an uptick in minority judges, both black and female, but noted a lack of other nationalities.

“There are females, there are minorities, but it’s still not as representative as it could be,” she said.

South Carolina’s higher courts, like North Carolina’s, show what could be perceived as a relative lack of diversity, at least racially.

Chief Justice Donald Beatty, a black man, sits alone as the only African-American on the Supreme Court. Court of Appeals Judge John Geathers is the only African-American among his colleagues — five white men and three white women.

Archie, the superior court judge, likened spots in the higher courts to those in big law firms — “highly coveted” and hard to come by for anyone, especially minorities.


Common ground, more standpoints

Across the “panel,” judges agree that a diverse bench is a good thing. Archie considers the courthouse “the home of diversity,” a place where black and white, old and young, men and women come together. As such, she believes the system should be reflective of the community and those who access the system.

“It provides a breadth of perspective and … I believe it relates to the community’s trust of the system,” she said. “People who don’t feel like they are represented even visually in our justice system may have some inherent distrust for our justice system and may not access it because they think it’s not going to serve their best interests.”

Putman used the example of the family court mother who worries that the male judge she stands before couldn’t possibly understand her child custody issue. Or the criminal defendant who believes that his judge grew up in a different community and therefore can’t relate to, much less empathize with, him.

During his election campaign, Morgan talked to Lawyers Weekly about the importance of looking at cases through a “clear lens,” with no “political leaning.” He reiterated the importance of that here, opining that multiple viewpoints of legal issues ultimately lead not to confusion, but clarity. The exchange of information from different backgrounds, he said, enlightens everyone and strengthens the system.

“There more perspectives there are, the greater the opportunity to be able to make sure that it is an opinion or decision or ruling that, because it has been through so many different angles of viewpoints … the greater that is to make sure that it’s been properly vetted,” Morgan said.

Creating a ‘pipeline’

So what is the formula for broadening the legal bench in a profession that American Bar Association statistics suggest is largely male and vastly white? Morgan, Archie and Putman agree that the process must begin early.

Archie advocates getting out in the community and exposing children to the legal field, paving the way for “a pipeline of future lawyers.”

“And in elementary school — let’s not wait until high school to start talking to kids about being lawyers and judges, because oftentimes they don’t think about that as an option,” Archie said. “They don’t know anybody who’s a lawyer, they’ve never seen anyone up close and personal who wears a black robe … they don’t know anybody that they can relate to, and so envision themselves as in the future.”

Morgan agreed, using “cross-cultural exposure” in describing a method by which to expose certain demographics to professional careers and, specifically, the law.

“Schools’ basketball teams and football teams start recruiting early on. We as a legal profession could do a lot better ourselves … beyond going to career days in high schools, but actually getting involved in middle schools,” Morgan said. …I think that would go a long way toward relaxing and even removing some of these artificial barriers that have propped up throughout the generations and we’ll begin to realize that everybody, when given an opportunity, can show that he or she is well-equipped … to be in the law as well as to be on the bench.”

Putman once chaired a South Carolina Young Lawyers Division program called “Color of Justice,” geared toward encouraging minority students to consider a legal career.

“That would keep them in the pipeline if they were interested in law, maybe one day they would aspire to be a judge,” Putman said. “But you have to get them interested in the field before you can expect that they would want to go to the bench.”

Minority Report

In 2015, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and Vault, which ranks and reviews employers, conducted its annual Law Firm Diversity Survey and found that — at least among the five Carolinas-based firms that participated — not much has changed in recent years, at least statistically speaking.

It’s unclear how these numbers correlate, if at all, with the number of minorities aspiring to a judgeship, but Archie made a comment that added some perspective.

“The first African-American female superior court judge was in my lifetime; I appeared in front of that judge in the not so distant past,” Archie said. “To think that we have just now in modern history seen the first African-American female superior court judge is pretty amazing to me.”

That judge, Shirley Fulton, was elected in 1988 after also serving as Charlotte’s first black female prosecutor.

She once said that she would have preferred not to have broken the barrier.

“It made me feel shame for society that we had come that far and we were just getting black females in the role,” Fulton was quoted as saying. “I guess a lot of things fell into place for me. But sometimes I had to push them into place.”

It’s 2017 and while seeing a black man or woman — or other minority — behind the gavel is no longer an anomaly, most agree that there’s still a need to keep pushing.

“We’re behind,” Archie said. “Everybody is behind.”

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher

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