Bankole: Balance the courts with more black judges

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Harry T. Edwards, a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and former professor at the University of Michigan Law School, wrote an essay for a Yale Law School journal in 2002 suggesting that the presence of black judges enhances the country’s judiciary system.

Racial diversity on the bench broadens “the variety of voices and perspectives in the deliberative process,” he wrote.

“I do not mean to suggest that black judges should serve in a ‘representational’ role, seeking to enforce some mythical black perspective. I reject this view, for all judges are obliged to enforce the law no matter what their perspectives on matters of race,” Edwards wrote in the Yale Law and Policy Review, as a tribute to the late A. Leon Higginbotham, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.

Higginbotham was regarded as one of the most influential African-American legal scholars of the last 50 years who aggressively advocated for racial progress from the bench.

That clarion call for more blacks in the judiciary is one of the principles that 46th District Judge Debra Nance has accepted in her role as the newly elected 38th president of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan.

The association, founded in 1979 by the late Harold Hood, a former chief judge pro tem of the Michigan Court of Appeals, was formed as a means of creating a vehicle for the collective voice of black judges in the state. The need could not be any more pertinent than today, Nance says.

“In 2016, in Oakland and Macomb counties where there is a growing population of black litigants there is still little to no black representation on the bench in family or probate courts,” Nance said. “What happens on these benches as well as in criminal matters in circuit and district court play a crucial role in the lives of our community and the role of the appeals court is equally important.”

Nance, who is serving a one-year term, said the task ahead is to better identify opportunities and to prepare and promote the group’s membership county-by-county to bring a more diverse perspective to the bench.

“It is important that we remain on the bench and at the table in order to impact policy and programs that promote fairness in the legal system,” Nance said.

But advocating for diversity on the bench does not mean playing the race card, the judge added.

“Diversity on the bench does not mean deference to any particular group. We stand for impartiality and fairness in the criminal justice system for everyone,” Nance said.

“Our country is better and stronger because of our diversity and that holds true for our judiciary.”

She added, “Just like the right to a jury of one’s peers allow for more diversity in perspectives and value, a racially diverse bench encourages the perception of fairness and impartiality in fact finding and judicial decision making.”

It was only a year ago that Denise Langford Morris, 62, a former president of the ABJM became the first black and female dean of the Oakland County Circuit Court since the court was founded in 1848. She and Leo Bowman are the only two African-American judges on the circuit court.

Morris, now in her 23rd year on the bench, became the first black on the Oakland County Circuit Court when she was appointed by former Gov. John Engler in 1992. She has successfully run for re-election since then and presided over many high-profile cases including those of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and rapper Eminem.

“Progress has been made over my years on the bench. We have seen many more female jurists, but we continue to have a strong need for a more diverse legal profession,” Morris said.

ABJM has 54 members, including several non-black judges, who are committed to educating the public on court processes and encourage others to enter the legal profession.

“It is important to retain and prepare those that aspire to the bench in order to maintain confidence in our system,” Nance said.

And the goal of achieving judicial diversity must remain in the forefront, as noted by Michigan Court of Appeals justice Cynthia Stephens in the May 2015 issue of the Michigan Bar Journal.

“Make every effort to render the process transparent to the public, including broader publication of vacancies and reporting the demographics of the pool of applicants and appointees. Increase the diversity of vetting, judicial qualifications, and candidate-rating committee members who evaluate applicants for judicial office by appointment or election,” Stephens wrote.

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.