Jess Bravin, Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2020
As demonstrations after George Floyd’s killing in police custody unfolded across the nation last week, the chief justice of North Carolina weighed in with her own declaration—the first in a wave of extraordinary statements by jurists around the country.
“In our courts, African-Americans are more harshly treated, more severely punished and more likely to be presumed guilty,” Chief Justice Cheri Beasley said, standing in her Raleigh, N.C., courtroom.
“These protests are a resounding, national chorus of voices whose lived experiences reinforce the notion that black people are ostracized, cast out, and dehumanized,” she said. “As chief justice, it is my responsibility to take ownership of the way our courts administer justice, and acknowledge that we must do better, we must be better.”
Within days, state supreme courts and chief justices around the country began to echo Chief Justice Beasley’s call, issuing their own statements on what they said was the judiciary’s role in perpetuating injustices and pledging to root out racial bias.
“I have heard from lots of courts and chiefs across the nation since I made my statement, and many of them have said that my statement inspired them to speak out,” she said.
For courts, whose culture and codes of conduct discourage judges from commenting beyond their published decisions, the racial-justice statements are something new and remarkable.
“We are at an inflection point in our history. It is all too clear that the legacy of past injustices inflicted on African Americans persists powerfully and tragically to this day,” declared all seven justices of the California Supreme Court. “People of color are being denied their rightful equality,” wrote Mary Ellen Barbera, chief judge of Maryland’s highest court. “Let us…make it known that, in Maryland, the lives of people of color do matter.”
Corporations, universities, sports leagues and professional associations all have publicly expressed concern about racial bias and promised to work for greater equality. Such institutions regularly chime in to show they are in tune with their customer base or other constituencies.
Judges simply don’t.
“I don’t remember anything like this happening in the years I’ve been following the judiciary and been a part of the judiciary,” said Jeremy Fogel, a former federal and state judge who leads the University of California’s Berkeley Judicial Institute. “This feels like a tipping point.”
“Look at the courts that have spoken out. It’s not just liberal-leaning courts or Democratic-majority courts. It’s quite bipartisan,” Mr. Fogel said. “They are saying, ‘We understand there’s some very troubling stuff, some structural issues we have to address,’ ” he said. “That doesn’t mean that any particular case is going to be decided in a particular way.”
“As judges, we must recognize the role we have played in devaluing black lives,” the liberal-leaning Supreme Court in Washington state said in a missive signed by all nine justices. “The systemic oppression of black Americans is not merely incorrect and harmful; it is shameful and deadly.”
Yet Texas’s more conservative Supreme Court also spoke out, issuing an acknowledgment that “critical conversations are taking place…about equality and justice under the law.” The court encouraged the public to review materials from a 2016 conference it co-sponsored on confidence in the judiciary.
The Alaska Supreme Court said, “Too often African-Americans, Alaska Natives, and other people of color are not treated with the same dignity and respect as white members of our communities.” It added: “We must work with our neighbors to help heal the raw wounds of racism and history that have been so painfully laid bare.”
Some courts have gone beyond statements. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore of New York state appointed former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to lead an independent review of the “court system’s response to issues of institutional racism.”