Tuesday September 23 Georgia College hosted Diversity on the Bench: Why It Matters.
Dr. Roger Coate, of the Political Science Department, moderated the panel comprised of four Georgia judges.
Included were Justin Anand, U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of Georgia, DeKalb County State Court Judge Dax Lopez, Judge Carla Wong McMillian, of the Georgia Court of Appeals, and Gail Tusan, Chief Administrative Judge, of the Atlanta Judicial Circuit and Fifth Judicial Administrative District.
The opening question: “What does diversity on the bench really mean? And why is it important and something which we should aspire for?” led to some insightful answers.
“I think we should have judges from different race and ethnic backgrounds and gender because we all bring our own experience to the table,” McMillian said. “And we use that experience to look at facts as they’re presented to us.”
She added that diversity is necessary to instill the public’s confidence in the legal system.
“I think if you look around, Georgia’s become so much more diverse. If the judges don’t reflect that diversity then the public may have some suspicion that maybe the system’s against them or maybe they can’t get a fair opportunity in court,” McMillian said.
Lopez said that in DeKalb County 124 languages are spoken. Five of the seven judges on Dekalb County’s state court are bilingual.
“If we’re going to have any form of legitimacy among our community we have to have judges who understand cultural issues, language issues, language as a barrier to access justice issues,” Lopez said.
Like Lopez Tusan regulary sees diversity in the courtroom.
“I think when there is a diverse bench the public has more of an expectation that their issues will be heard and considered,” Tusan said.
Anand felt that diversity was especially important for federal court judges.
“None of us in federal court are actually given our jobs by voters directly at least. I feel that the need for us to have legitimacy and representativeness is if anything more important because we don’t have that mandated from voters,” Anand said.
He also emphasized that diversity today is crucial for the future.
“There needs to be role models and pioneers for young folks, whether in college or law school or even before all that, of diverse backgrounds to say I can be a judge, I can be a leader, I can be a public servant,” said Anand.
Lopez then focused specifically on the importance of education in the Hispanic community as a means of improving bench diversity.
“We may have numbers in terms of population, but we do not have professional ranks that are ready to sort of assume these leadership positions,” Lopez said.
“In terms of the Hispanic population we’re 17 percent of the United States, the largest minority in the United States. We are less than four percent of U.S. lawyers. I would say that we are not even half the percent of Georgia lawyers. And a little less than one percent of Hispanic lawyers in Georgia are judges.”
Not seeing similar role models is discouraging.
“A factor in lack of diversity on our bench is based on the fact that folks like me may select themselves out of the process,” McMillian said.
But Anand pointed out that as diversity continues to grow in general, more people will see relatable role models on the bench.
“As the current diverse populations of schools and graduate schools, and the business community and other fields, grows people of all backgrounds will have more influence and connections,” Anand said.
Lopez emphasized that embracing diversity begins with the individual. Instead of self-segregating ourselves it’s imperative that we get to know others of different backgrounds.
Lastly multiple audience questions were asked. There was a strong student interest, evident by the many students who lingered afterwards to meet the judges and ask additional questions.