Without Black Judges, Blind Spots Exist

James V. Cook, Tallahassee.com, November 30, 2009

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{snip} Since then [the author’s youth], I’ve spent time in multiracial countries such as Brazil and Cuba, where black and white people don’t routinely cluster together by race to the extent we still do here.

In the Leon County Courthouse, though, I am a minority. There, the vast majority of faces in most courtrooms are black and brown. Predictably, most of the few faces in the front of the courtroom–the lawyers, clerks and judges–are white. The idea that, when the judge looking down from the bench is always white and the defendant down below is usually black, even-handed justice will routinely prevail is the epitome of naive idealism.

To my knowledge, there has only ever been one African-American circuit judge in the 185-year history of Leon County. And while an African-American judge certainly does not guarantee justice for the huge numbers of African-Americans who are swept into the county’s legal system, it does almost inevitably introduce a set of experiences into the community of circuit judges that can be of tremendous value in removing substantial blind spots in the system.

Circuit judges live in a different world. They make $145,000 a year in Florida, which puts them among the top tenth of lawyers in pay. They enter the courthouse through a gated parking garage and work behind a great many protective barriers. They are given almost total immunity from lawsuits for their judicial actions. Add to that fact that all the circuit judges in the Second Judicial Circuit are white, and it’s not fair to my clients, or to me as their lawyer.

The judges we have may (or may not) be great legal scholars. They may have graduated at the top of their law school classes. I don’t know. But I want more than that. Sometimes, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a wise person of color can make a better decision because of a richer store of experience. {snip}

We have a number of qualified African-American lawyers in the Second Judicial Circuit who could bring credit to our courts. Let’s put one of them on the circuit bench. Soon.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James V. Cook is a civil rights lawyer who lives and works in Tallahassee. He is a winner of the 2003 national NAACP Foot Soldiers Award. Contact him at [email protected]

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