California Lawyers Association

Working Toward Racial Justice

By President Emilio Varanini and
Chair of the Board of Representatives Howard “Chip” Wilkins 

After the death of George Floyd this spring, we made a commitment on behalf of our members, the profession, and the public to collectively work toward addressing structural racism and discrimination in the 21st century and to ensure justice for all. 

We’ve been listening and learning to make sure that we do more than simply talk about injustice – that we take action that will lead to meaningful changes. 

This work is critical to safeguarding the rule of law, preventing discrimination, and ensuring fairness in the administration of justice. All persons should be treated with full respect and with full protection of our constitutional rights. 

We are grateful for the thoughtful leadership of Adrieannette Ciccone, Leif Dautch, Terrance Evans, Monique D. Jewett-Brewster, Marjeneh Maroufi and Ellen Miller, who have stepped up to launch our newly formed Racial Justice Committee, which is focused on public education, member education, member engagement and legislative and advocacy.

On June 24, we kicked off the first of four of well-attended Town Hall meetings over Zoom. We listened as leaders in our CLA community bravely shared their personal stories of experiencing racism. 

At our July 2 Town Hall, The Role of Race in Our Criminal Justice System, Black prosecutors and defense lawyers recounted their experiences and insights. On July 23 we held a Know Your Rights Town Hall highlighting statistics that show how African Americans are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than white people and providing information on what to do if stopped by law enforcement. Our July 27 Town Hall on Intersectionality explored how race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other individual characteristics intersect and overlap with one another. 

Those conversations have generated great interest, which has only bolstered our commitment to a weekly ongoing series of programs in partnership with our practice area Sections and external bar associations. Our aim is to explore a myriad of issues dealing with structural racism and inequity in more depth. For example, on July 30, we held a webinar on accessing police discipline files from the perspective of a criminal defense lawyer and an agency lawyer.

We look forward to the following upcoming events, with details to be posted on our events calendar

Aug. 5 – A panel of judges will give their perspectives on Microaggressions in the Courtroom, or everyday instances of racism, sexism and other inequities.

Aug. 19 – We’re planning a town hall-style program for family law lawyers to share their stories.

Aug. 20 – We’re planning a town hall-style program on selecting and prosecuting civil rights cases.

Aug. 22 – We are collaborating with a number of other groups to explore methods for disenfranchising the power of hate, recognizing the meaning of white privilege, especially as it relates to women, and understanding our own biases. 

Aug. 26 – We’re going in-depth on the topic of police disciplinary cases – how the process works and what can be improved.

In addition to the online events, we’re working with the American Bar Association on resolutions going before the House of Delegates this week to advance racial justice. 

CLA has put forward three resolutions to:

  • Support the enactment of legislation that allows for law enforcement officers to be decertified when they have been convicted of a felony or committed misconduct that violates principles of fairness in the administration of justice. This was incorporated into Resolution 116A, which we support.
  • Urge enactment of legislation to prohibit lynching, which has received considerable support from various sections and groups of the ABA.
  • Support the establishment and implementation of standards and training for law enforcement agents that would prohibit the forcible removal of drivers and passengers from vehicles where those individuals are complying peacefully with lawful orders and there is no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. We withdrew this to work on it more and bring it back at the ABA’s Mid-Year Meeting in early 2021.

We’re also co-sponsoring two resolutions – one urging legislation to eliminate or curtail the defense of qualified immunity in civil actions brought against law enforcement officers and one recognizing June 19 (Juneteenth) as a holiday in observance of the day in 1865 when the last remaining enslaved African Americans in the Confederacy were informed that they were emancipated. We will update you on the outcome.

Let’s keep momentum going. We invite you to get involved by attending a Town Hall or joining the Racial Justice Committee.

We were inspired by the final words of Congressman John Lewis, in the message he directed to be delivered the day he was laid to rest Thursday: 

“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

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