We recognize that 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. And we recognize that as community members, lawyers, and especially as judicial officers, we must do more to change this reality....As judges we must examine what those changes must be, what biases -- both conscious and unconscious -- we bring, and how we can improve our justice system so that all who enter are assured they will receive equal treatment. We must continue our efforts to make our court system and its judges reflect the community that we serve.
I am deeply disturbed by the tragic deaths of George Floyd and others, as well as the action and inaction that led to these deaths. Justice is the first need addressed by the People in the preamble of our nation’s Constitution. As public servants, judicial officers swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. We must continue to remove barriers to access and fairness, to address conscious and unconscious bias—and yes, racism. All of us, regardless of gender, race, creed, color, sexual orientation or identity, deserve justice. Our civil and constitutional rights are more than a promise, a pledge, or an oath—we must enforce these rights equally. Being heard is only the first step to action as we continue to strive to build a fairer, more equal and accessible justice system for all.
We must, as a society, honestly recognize our unacceptable failings and continue to build on our shared strengths. We must acknowledge that, in addition to overt bigotry, inattention and complacency have allowed tacit toleration of the intolerable. These are burdens particularly borne by African Americans as well as Indigenous Peoples singled out for disparate treatment in the United States Constitution when it was ratified. We have an opportunity, in this moment, to overcome division, accept responsibility for our troubled past, and forge a unified future for all who share devotion to this country and its ideal
Connecticut Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson (June 9)
I must make it clear that I am not disparaging law enforcement or our judicial systems, but I am saying that they are not perfect institutions. I am outraged by some of the things that I have seen and heard. With each new revelation my heart breaks even more and like many of you, I have long since reached the point that, as Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” The existing imperfections in our justice systems have profound and lasting effect on all of us, but it is more severe on those of us who are the most vulnerable. There is a need for real and immediate improvement. America can - and must - do a better job of providing “equal justice under law,” the very words that are engraved on the front of the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. I believe that our justice system is one of the best in the world, however, to quote Victor Hugo “Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just.”
As judges, we take an oath to do justice equally to the rich and to the poor regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other demographics and our oath requires us to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. We hold sacred the rights guaranteed by our Constitution and as judges, we must listen and do justice to the cases that people bring before us people from all walks of life. Our judges and dedicated court staff take seriously our responsibility to administer justice we work hard to ensure access to justice for all and to make sure our courts are the best they can be to serve our community.
The prominence and horror of the George Floyd murder does point to continued divisiveness. But, at the same time, it also points to unparalleled unity as exhibited by unprecedented numbers of people of all ages, races, and walks of life who are: (1) expressing outrage at the continued unnecessary violence by some police officers against African Americans; and (2) asking ‘What can we do to make things better going forward?’...We are grieving right now. And that is proper and healthy. I don’t know if we have ever grieved like this before. But by grieving together, coming together, and supporting one another through all of this, I know that we will come out of this better than we were before. And for that I am encouraged.
The recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, within months of each other, have been tragic reminders of the reality that many face every day across our nation. For those of us who work in the justice system, which promises equal justice for all, this is a time of reckoning that requires careful listening, increased education and self-reflection, and, most importantly, action. We have a collective responsibility to hear the voices that have been raised, and to address deeply rooted and systemic problems within the structures of our institutions.
Racism exists, whether it be actualized as individual racism, institutional racism or structural racism, and it undermines our democracy, the fair and equitable administration of justice, and severely diminishes individual constitutional protections and safeguards of full citizenship with the attendant rights and benefits sacred to all. People of color have no less expectation of fairness, equity and freedom from racial discrimination than others, yet they are continually confronted with racial injustices that the Courts have the ability to nullify and set right.
Despite all we have worked to pursue, justice remains elusive to many persons of color in matters across the legal spectrum. There is a disconnect between what we aspire for in our justice system and what we have achieved. That may be hard to hear for all of us who work every day for fairness, but we must hear the voices that cry out in our streets and towns. We must acknowledge and confront the reality that our fellow community members say is their experience. And it is imperative we take action to change that experience—not ignore, justify, or disparage it.
As a justice system, we must be willing to recognize our failures. And we must be willing to not only listen, but to actually hear the very valid concerns raised by people who have been marginalized, degraded, or made to feel less than. The court system and the legal profession must continue to advocate for a diverse bench and bar to reflect the communities that we serve. We must continue to improve communication between the courts, justice partners, and court participants. And we must constantly evaluate and address institutional racism and our own implicit biases. I recognize that we—all of us—have a long way to go. But I am pleased with the progress the court system has made over the past few years to provide diversity and cultural collision trainings to all judges, clerks, specialty courts staff, and pretrial staff across the state.
As Chief Justice and chief administrator of our state’s courts, I readily admit our justice system falls far short of the equality it espouses. And I see many of its worst injustices meted out in the criminal legal system. Inequities there range from courts being funded with fines levied on poor, disproportionately African American defendants, to our longtime use of Jim Crow laws to silence African American jurors and make it easier to convict African American defendants. We need only look at the glaring disparities between the rate of arrests, severity of prosecutions and lengths of sentences for drug offenses in poor and African American communities in comparison to those in wealthier White communities, to see how we are part of the problem. Is it any wonder why many people have little faith that our legal system is designed to serve them or protect them from harm? Is it any wonder why they have taken to the streets to demand that it does?
The courts have a direct and fundamental responsibility to dispense justice without any hint or even appearance of racism or other bias in all of their insidious forms. Freedom from disparate treatment based upon race is not only a constitutional right—it is a basic human right. The mission of the Maine Judicial Branch is to “administer justice by providing a safe, accessible, efficient and impartial system of dispute resolution that serves the public interest, protects individual rights, and instills respect for the law.”
Judges swear to be fair and impartial, to do justice in every individual case. That cannot change, but we, together, as members of the system of justice, must re-examine how we administer justice. We must determine, along with the other branches of government,
how to ensure that the protections and rights under law are afforded equally to all of us. We must assure that our courts do not suffer bias, conscious or unconscious. We must examine, together, the reasons for disproportionate impact upon people of color, and address those reasons.
As judges, we must look afresh at what we are doing, or failing to do, to root out any conscious and unconscious bias in our courtrooms; to ensure that the justice provided to African-Americans is the same that is provided to white Americans; to create in our courtrooms, our corner of the world, a place where all are truly equal.
Our judicial branch has the sacred duty of achieving the lofty goals professed in our State’s motto and Constitution. I am proud of the significant role Nebraska’s courts have had in carrying out this duty, including some of our recent accomplishments recounted below. But this is a time when we must ask ourselves, “Is there a way we can do this better?” The answer to that question is yes. Yes, we must find ways to recognize deficiencies in equal access to justice in our courts, and yes, we must find ways to address those deficiencies.
Justice and fairness lie at the heart of our legal system. And those standards must apply equally to all. Wherever it exists in the criminal justice system, we must identify and root out bias in all forms. The courts must be a place where court users, attorneys, and court employees can all expect to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect, regardless of their race or background.
The death of George Floyd, and the issues it has brought into harsh focus, are a painful reminder of the repeated injustices and institutional racism that have long undermined the values and unity of our nation. The court system’s commitment to these values is especially vital. Their preservation is a cornerstone of the rule of law, the subject of sacred oaths taken by all judges and lawyers, and the daily endeavors of the thousands of court employees around the State who work tirelessly to advance the cause of justice.
As the mother of twin sons who are young black men, I know that the calls for change absolutely must be heeded. And while we rely on our political leaders to institute those necessary changes, we must also acknowledge the distinct role that our courts play. 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.
Courts, by their creation and purpose, are to be unbiased, and must treat all equally under the law. Despite the good that courts have done over the past 230 years, for some, courts are not to be trusted. The perception is that the system is rigged against minorities and people who are poor, and that there is an unequal application of justice. The judiciary can address its trust problem. It starts with every judge, individually, in every county and city. It is imperative that every judge embrace the truth that we are ‘public servants’ and not imperious panjandrums.
As members of the judicial branch, we are cautious – always careful not to prejudge situations. But we cannot ignore the risks that African Americans, Blacks, and other people of color face as each day dawns. The urgency for action has long been upon us, but the immediacy of the need is even more apparent today. We must ensure that the lives of African Americans, Blacks, and people of color are valued and respected and that the color of peoples’ skin does not affect their rights to justice or the treatment they are afforded by our system of justice...Our courts are an integral part of the justice system and have an essential role to play in ensuring justice for all. We must stand firm against racism and oppression. We must be intentional in our efforts to move in a different direction. We must examine our individual thoughts and beliefs, as well as our professional approaches, processes, and environments to address the impact of our own biases. We must examine, anew, what we are doing, or failing to do, to root out conscious and unconscious bias in our legal system.
Our goal must be to achieve a system of justice that is accessible to all and treats all persons equally. We ought not lose sight of the fact that our courts are largely populated by dedicated attorneys, efficient court personnel, honest jurors, and fair-minded judicial officers. Yet bias does exist, and we all must remain vigilant to recognize it and ensure that it plays no role in our court proceedings.
Racism still exists and has no place in our society. Upon entering service in the judiciary, we swore to uphold the constitutions of the State of Tennessee and the United States. Thus, it is our moral obligation and our sworn duty to ensure that the people of Tennessee receive equal protection of its laws. Justice must be for all.
Critical conversations are taking place in communities across Texas about equality and justice under the law. The Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, with support from the Children’s Commission, spearheaded efforts to facilitate these discussions in their Beyond the Bench: Law, Justice, and Communities Summit. All Texans may find videos and resource materials from the summit here, as well as a toolkit for fostering dialogue throughout the state about solutions for enhancing the public's trust in our justice system.
We are painfully aware that municipal courts like ours have historically been situated on, or at least very near, the tip of systemic racism’s spear. See, e.g., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Civil Rights Div., Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, (March 4, 2015), at 42-61 (detailing how the practices employed by the Ferguson Municipal Court exacerbated existing racial disparities). Although our court has made a deliberate and concerted effort to reverse these practices, we understand—as Malcolm X did—that there is a significant difference between retracting an injurious blade just a little bit and bringing about the complete healing of a long-standing wound.
As judges, we must recognize the role we have played in devaluing black lives. This very court once held that a cemetery could lawfully deny grieving black parents the right to bury their infant. We cannot undo this wrong⸺but we can recognize our ability to do better in the future. We can develop a greater awareness of our own conscious and unconscious biases in order to make just decisions in individual cases, and we can administer justice and support court rules in a way that brings greater racial justice to our system as a whole.