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Despite progress, a long way to go

By Anthony P. Capozzi
President, State Bar of California

Anthony P. Capozzi, President, State Bar of California

Fifty years ago, on May 17, 1954, our highest court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation by race in our public schools denied people of color equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

This year, in conjunction with Law Day celebrations in California and around the country, lawyers are taking the lead in commemorating this historic ruling. It is a natural leadership position for us to assume, for this ruling goes right to the heart of the battles lawyers still fight every day — the battles for equal opportunity under, equal protection of, equal access to, and equal justice within the law that governs all Americans.

We at the State Bar are fully committed not only to these principles, but to this year's ongoing celebration of this historic decision. Our board of governors voted unanimously to join this celebration and to work vigorously to raise awareness among the public about the history of the decision and its impact in the five decades since it was handed down. In turn, we are working closely with Chief Justice Ronald George, the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts to plan education and awareness events throughout the year to mark this anniversary.

We have come a long way in our profession in light of the fact that women and people of color were once prohibited from admission to the then-California Bar Association. In 1878, the state legislature lifted the prohibition against women and struck the words, "white male," from all sections of the Code of Civil Procedure that prohibited persons of color to qualify for the bar examination.

In 1927, the Blackstone Club, which included black and Jewish lawyers who were barred from membership in the Los Angeles Bar Association and in the then-private California Bar Associa-tion, lobbied the legislature, which was considering putting the bar association under the jurisdiction of the state Supreme Court. This coalition of lawyers convinced the legislature to put the unified State Bar under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to insure admission of people from all walks of life.

We may have had a storied past, but today, we at the State Bar are committed to diversity as set out in the board of governors' strategic plan. It encourages individuals from all walks of life to seek and qualify for admission to the practice of law and remain in practice for as long as they may contribute to our profession and society. The plan, in concise and plain language, says what it means and means what it says.

America's great strength is found in the diversity of its people. One doesn't give up his or her culture to be an American. Each of our cultures is brought into a wonderful mosaic where each fragment is brought together in a harmony of many voices.

Despite the strides we have made as a country toward a society that is meant to be color-blind, it would be naive to think that we live in a time of true racial equality and that racial tension does not exist. We don't and it does. And, we, as lawyers, know this better than anyone.

The State Bar of California, its board of governors and staff are committed to fostering and encouraging diversity within the profession. It is our hope that someday very soon, the racial and ethnic make-up of the bar will proportionately represent the racial and ethnic make-up of the state of California. It is our strong belief that this will establish a basis for greater trust and confidence in a justice system that we all too often find ourselves defending.

We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go. In our last demographic survey, conducted by the California Bar Journal in 2001, we learned that only 2.4 percent of attorneys in California are African-American. That figure is up 20 percent from 1991, when it was only 2 percent. The 2001 survey also found that Latinos made up 3.7 percent of the bar, Asians made up 6 percent, and whites made up 83 percent of the bar.

To assure the effective and equal opportunity of all persons for entry into and advancement in the legal profession, the State Bar, using voluntary funds:

  • Created the Center for Access & Fairness to coordinate diversity activities, create a clearinghouse of resources, partner with other entities on diversity programs, develop and present programs on the elimination of bias, and develop strategic initiatives to increase diversity in the profession;
  • Supports the access and fairness committees in their efforts to increase diversity in the legal profession and in the administration of the State Bar on behalf of attorneys from diverse backgrounds, in particular women, ethnic minorities, seniors, attorneys with disabilities and attorneys with sexual orientation and gender identity issues;
  • Created the Annual State Bar Diversity Awards to recognize exemplary efforts by an individual attorney and bar association toward increasing diversity in the profession; and
  • Coordinates and partners with the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts on access and fairness issues and projects.

The bar also supports committee appointment policies that encourage the recruitment, application and appointment of attorneys from diverse backgrounds.

As we all know and believe, the legal profession is a noble profession that is vital in shaping our history. Indeed, the law writes the script for the ongoing American drama, with lawyers and jurists serving as the actors connecting society and the law. The legal community possesses the power to humanize or dehumanize our legal system. The choice is clear.

As a community of lawyers, we must come together and see that the dream of Marshall, Houston, Hastie, Langston, Manual, Broussard, all the trailblazers of old and the torch bearers of today, are finally realized.

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