Last month, without any prompting from a pending case or matter, the Florida Supreme Court sua sponte ruled that the Florida Bar can no longer issue continuing legal education credits to any entity that requires diversity in selecting speakers.
At a time when our country is at a crossroads on racial issues—enduring the long painful trial of Derek Chauvin for the brutal murder of George Floyd, a summer of unrest due to his and the deaths of Breonna Taylor as well as Ahmaud Arbery, a huge rise in AAPI hate attacks, anti-Semitic attacks increasing by 40% in our state, and Charlottesville not far in our rearview mirror —it is incredibly irresponsible and concerning to take this approach.
If a CLE addressed Asian hate, and the sponsoring entity required at least one Asian speaker, the session would not see credit. Is the Florida Supreme Court saying that only white men can opine on anti-Asian hate? Or racism? Further marginalizing voices who can share lived experiences that can educate others makes our profession weaker. It goes back to days gone by when only white voices mattered or were heard in any discussion.
It’s 2021. Gone were the days that you do not find diverse attorneys—women, various races and ethnicities, LGBT+—locked out of various areas of practice. Seeing experts that are different than you broadens your horizons, and helps attack implicit bias. The Supreme Court, ironically, highlighted the importance of diversity and eradicating implicit bias—yet attacked the very means to be able to accomplish diversity by using a misguided application of the Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 307 (1978). Their basis—that requiring diverse speakers equates to an unconstitutional quota—blatantly ignores the fact that while people may have good intentions, guidelines are needed to ensure diversity. By saying “at least one speaker should be a member of a group based upon race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and multiculturalism” does not act to the detriment of any other group.
Sadly, several of the Supreme Court justices were appointed by this governor, who has made it clear he is hostile to communities of color. From his comments disrespecting the jury’s verdict in the Chauvin case, to signing an unnecessary and regressive anti-protest bill that attacks free speech, to stripping access to the ballot box, and unevenly distributing the vaccine to the point that 100% of wealthy white people are vaccinated in this state as opposed to only 31% of Black residents, his intentions have been clear as day. Lastly, he recently signed a bill demanding all university professors to fill out regular surveys to determine their political beliefs, and empowers students to secretly record their professors for daring to opine differently than the conservative status quo.
The judiciary is supposed to be independent, not following lock step with the governor’s war against social media and any opinion that is not conservative. The goal of having a diverse panel is to ensure diversity of ideas—conservative, progressive and independent. It is to raise awareness around a particular topic, which makes us better lawyers and people.
This ruling will have wide consequences. Several organizations are discussing no longer hosting events in Florida, which will cause attorneys to have to travel longer and further to get quality content while depriving our economy. Locally, as bar associations grapple with engaging and retaining members, if they are barred from presenting quality programs with diverse speakers, it will only further harm their finances and relevance.
Requiring diversity is the furthest thing from discrimination. This is still in the comment period—if you believe that having a variety of speakers uplifts our profession, please contact the Supreme Court and tell them to rescind this misguided rule. If it does stay intact, I hope that organizations will continue to practice bringing diverse speakers. It is unfortunate that those with oaths and responsibilities continue to make Florida the laughingstock of the country. Those of us who truly care about diversity—with more than words, but with actual deeds—will continue to push forward.
I hope everyone is well, healthy, and on the way to being vaccinated!!
Things have been good and hectic in my world (yes, I know, shocker!), but lots of great projects have come to my world!
This week, I was featured in the documentary “Last Day In“, which critically examines the US criminal justice system. It was a project in collaboration with several filmmakers and the hip hop artist Kodak Black, who had several high profile brushes with the law before being pardoned by the last presidential administration.
We do not speak about his case; instead, we focus on what the average, every day person encounters after being arrested, and the collateral consequences that impact entire communities for generations.
Every year for Black History Month, I highlight trailblazing female attorneys that made it possible for me to do what I do today! This year, my Legal Diva of Color is Representative Barbara Jordan, who made history on a number of levels throughout her career.
Barbara Charline Jordan was born February 21, 1936, in Houston, Texas. Her father was a Baptist minister and warehouse clerk; her mother was a maid, housewife and church teacher. Greatness was pre-ordained in her blood. Rep. Jordan’s great-grandfather, Edward Patton, was one of several Black representatives who served in the Texas legislature during Reconstruction — prior to disenfranchisement of Black Texans under Jim Crow.
Rep. Jordan attended the segregated Phillis Wheatley High School, where a career day speech by Edith Sampson, a Black lawyer, inspired her to become an attorney. Never underestimate the power of career day, and of role models to open the door to new career paths!
Her education continued as a member of the inaugural class at Texas Southern University, an HBCU (historically Black college/university) quickly created by the Texas legislature to avoid having to integrate the University of Texas. While at Texas Southern, Rep. Jordan was part of the debate team, helping them reach national acclaim. The team famously tied Harvard’s debaters when they came to Houston — a huge feat for a fledgling team, while simultaneously challenging the notion of white supremacy. She graduated magna cum laude in 1956, heading then to Boston University School of Law. Three years later, Jordan earned her law degree as one of only two African American women in her class. After passing the bars in Massachusetts and Texas, she decided to come back home to Houston, where she opened a law office.
Her pivot to public service began when Rep. Jordan volunteered for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960. She was a masterful organizer — driving 80% voter turnout in Harris County (which is where Houston is located). In a classic case of “if at first you don’t succeed“, she ran twice for the Texas House. The first two times she lost, but she finally won in 1966 — where she became the senator for a newly formed district. As a state senator, she worked to pass a state minimum wage law that covered farmworkers. Ever the hard worker, she co-sponsored over 70 bills.
After her success as a a state senator, Rep. Jordan ran for Congress as the Democratic nominee for Houston’s 18th District. She won, becoming the first African American woman from a Southern state to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. She enjoyed a mentor/mentee relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson, which enabled her to be appointed to key posts such as the House Judiciary Committee. Her breakout moment came on July 25, 1974, when Rep. Jordan gave the 15-minute opening statement of the Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing for Richard Nixon. Her speech was a staunch defense of the U.S. Constitution and its checks and balances designed to prevent abuse of power. She said, “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
She further stated “I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision, I have finally been included in “we the people””
Rep. Barbara Jordan, 1974
The impeachment speech helped lead to Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal and won Jordan national acclaim for her rhetoric, intellect and integrity. Her speech was so amazing that two years later, she was asked to deliver the keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention— a first for an African American woman! Rep. Jordan was even floated as a potential running mate for Jimmy Carter. She turned that down — but ironically, even though she was not a candidate, one delegate was so moved by her speech that they voted for her to be the Presidential nominee.
When she was not making history, Rep. Jordan was hard at work on legislation promoting women’s rights, supported the Equal Rights Amendment and cosponsored a bill that would have granted housewives Social Security benefits based on their domestic labor. She co-sponsored close to 300 bills, many of which are still law today.
After more than a decade of service, Rep. Jordan retired from Congress in 1979 to become a professor at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. It was a nice full circle moment, being able to teach at the university that she could not attend due to segregation, as well as in the school named after her mentor. She became an active public speaker and advocate, receiving 25 honorary doctorates. Her vehement opposition helped derail George Bush’s nomination of Robert Bork (who had opposed many civil rights cases) to the U.S. Supreme Court. She gave a second Democratic Convention keynote address in 1992. In 1994 then President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Rep. Jordan died of leukemia-related pneumonia on January 17, 1996 at age 59. Breaking barriers even in death, she became the first African American to be buried among the governors, senators and congressmen in the Texas State Cemetery. Her legacy includes the main terminal of the Austin International Airport bearing her name, along with a statute of her likeness. In 2000, the Jordan/Rustin Coalition (JRC) was created, honoring Rep. Jordan and Bayard Rustin, a leader in the civil rights movement and close confidante of Martin Luther King Jr. The organization’s goal was to mobilize LGBT+ African Americans to aid in the passage of marriage equality in California. Rep. Jordan had a long term companion named Nancy Earl, who was with her until the end of her life. No public statement has ever been made about their relationship, but it is believed they were life partners.
Thank you Rep. Barbara Jordan for being a trailblazer, and a Legal Diva of Color!
Miami criminal and civil rights attorney Melba Pearson. Courtesy photo
When South Florida’s 2020 primary elections became interlaced with concern about the county’s lack of police prosecutions, many felt it was time for a change at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.
But finding someone brave enough to actually challenge 27-year incumbent Katherine Fernandez Rundle was a different story.
Enter: former Miami-Dade prosecutor Melba Pearson, who spent a good year trying not to throw her hat in the ring.
“Nah, I’m good,” she recalls telling local attorneys, activists and survivors of crime when they’d approach her about running. Pearson searched for another candidate instead, but came up short. Months of soul searching and discussions ensued and, eventually, Pearson surprised herself.
“Running for public office was never on my list of things to do ever, ever. Just never,” Pearson said. “Because I found it invasive. You have to put yourself out there, you don’t have your privacy and people just attack you.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Two of Pearson’s online campaign events were Zoom-bombed by neo-Nazis, while some critics claimed she wouldn’t support the Black community because she’s married to a white man.
And though the election didn’t go how Pearson had hoped, as Fernandez Rundle kept her seat, Pearson said she was humbled to see how many young people were energized by her fight for change. That’s because, in Pearson’s view, it was time to take a stand after 41 years without a prosecution over an on-duty killing by Miami-Dade police officers.
“The goal is not to ignore the laws of the state of Florida,” Pearson said. “That’s not the point. But you also have to be strategic. You have to use the laws and be strategic to make sure that you’re achieving justice.”
And yet, Pearson was surprised by how many people, including attorneys in private practice, were afraid to oppose the incumbent for various reasons, with some believing, “I could get in trouble just for even talking to you.”
“To this day, it still boggles me because I don’t see it,” Pearson said.
Though many expressed a desire to support Black female candidates, Pearson said she was disappointed to find that personal interests often won out.
“I knew that politics could be a dirty game, but the hypocrisy was what I was really not prepared for,” Pearson said. “And maybe that was me being naïve but, you know, I thought, ‘I’ve watched “Scandal,” I’ve watched “House of Cards.” I think I know what to expect.’ And it’s like, oh no, people lie to your face. OK.”
‘Melba’s Run Was Important’
Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer partner Reggie Clyne was among Pearson’s supporters, outraged by the state attorney’s decision not to charge prison guards with the killing of Black inmate Darren Rainey, scalded to death in a shower. Mid-campaign, Fernandez Rundle refused a formal request from the Miami-Dade Democratic Party to resign over the move.
Clyne found ”a lot of people wouldn’t support [Pearson] because they were afraid,” but noted he’s since seen a change in the office’s approach.
“Melba’s run was important, especially for the African American community, because it brought to the fore the issue of what had happened here and why it was important that someone bring it to the light and get something done about it,” Clyne said.
Now director of policy and programs at Florida International University’s Center for the Administration of Justice, Pearson is spearheading a nationwide data project aimed at pinpointing systemic problems with efficiency and racial justice at prosecutors’ offices.
Pearson grew up in New York with Caribbean parents and always knew she’d become a lawyer, inspired by her father’s stories about the attorneys of civil rights movement leaders who ensured “America was being held to her promise of liberty and justice for all.”
Pearson’s father also played a key part in her decision to run for state attorney, reminding her, “You’ve got to sacrifice for the good of the people.”
Pearson planned to stay in New York, but moved into a tiny South Beach studio apartment when her first job offer came from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.
Pearson’s plans to handle misdemeanor trials hit a snag when she failed the bar exam, having wrongly assumed that, “If I sit in class and pay attention, I’m usually able to do well.”
Then-assistant Miami-Dade State Attorney Chadd Lackey remembers the look in Pearson’s eye when she found out.
“She went from really sad and discouraged to this steely-eyed determination that, no matter what, she was going to succeed at her job and get this bar exam issue resolved,” Lackey said.
‘A Time of Reckoning’
That triggered a legal hiatus for Pearson, who began planning special events for nightclubs, back when Jennifer Lopez, P Diddy and other 1990s celebrities and sports stars were regulars.
Pearson handled corporate events and marketing by 2001, when her home state was rocked by the 9/11 terror attacks.
“It was also a time of reckoning for me, like, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ And I didn’t feel that I was making a difference in people’s lives,” Pearson said. “The party was great. People had a good time that night. But what sustaining change have you made? None.”
Pearson was also in an abusive relationship, and reasoned, “Drastic changes need to happen because you’re not going to make it if you don’t.” Pearson left the relationship, passed the bar exam and began a new life as a prosecutor in the domestic violence division.
Four years in, Pearson became a Liberty City community prosecutor. And though she’d lived in Miami for years, that job revealed she didn’t really know its nooks and crannies.
“That is the root, sometimes, of a lot of the divisions we see in the country,” Pearson said. “You don’t really get outside of your circle, so you don’t meet people that live a different life than you do, that have whole different viewpoints than you do, that worship differently than you do. And that leads to misunderstandings and, sometimes, ignorance.”
Pearson’s background came in handy, as she designed events aimed at bringing different groups together—and still gets goosebumps when she recalls seeing Nation of Islam members arrive to watch a basketball game between police and Liberty City residents.
“Regardless of the politics of it,” Pearson said. “Just to see 20, 30 people all dressed in their finest, the women with their beautiful hair coverings and the gentlemen all coming with their bow ties, and they were like, ‘The fact that you’re here in this community doing this work, we’re here to show you this support.’”
That’s when the old adage clicked for Pearson: “That the defendant of today is the victim of tomorrow, and the victim of today could be the defendant of tomorrow. It’s all just a matter of circumstance and lack of resources.”
Pearson later became assistant chief of the career criminal robbery unit, president of the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association and president of the National Black Prosecutors Association. And as the country grappled with the police killings of Black teenagers Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald and Tamir Rice, Pearson went deeper into the criminal justice reform movement and encouraged conversations about what policing should look like.
Pearson took two trips to President Barack Obama’s White House and picked the brains of some of the country’s leading progressive prosecutors, including former San Francisco District Attorneys Kamala Harris and George Gascon.
Then, it was time to move on.
“It was just so energizing to be able to participate in this, but then I’d come back home and there was only so much that I could really do,” Pearson said.
After writing a Miami Herald op-ed about smarter sentencing, Pearson landed on the radar of ACLU of Florida executive director Howard Simon, who offered her a deputy director role.
Unfamiliar with the ACLU, Pearson discovered it was critical in securing the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision legalizing interracial marriage and, “It was a wrap for me.”
Now executive director of New Jersey State Commission of Investigations, Lackey said he and Pearson became “the siblings we never had.”
She’s someone with immense ambition, Lackey said, ”But it’s tempered by this kind heart and passion to do what’s right.” Lackey noted that he owes his career to Fernandez Rundle, but advised his friend to be the change she wanted to see.
“Competition makes us all better, and I hope that Kathy’s term reflects the fact that she did receive a sign challenge from Melba,” Lackey said.
Pearson published a book on prosecutorial discretion, titled “Can They Do That?” in June, and joined FIU in September.
Melba V. Pearson
Born: New Rochelle, New York
Spouse: Bill Mecham
Education: Hofstra University, J.D., 1997; New York University, B.A., 1994
Experience: Director of policy and programs at FIU Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, 2020-present; deputy director, ACLU of Florida, 2017-2019; president, MVP Law LLC, 2019-present; prosecutor, Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, 2002-2017
Raychel Lean South Florida litigation reporter Daily Business Review305-926-4875
We’ve waited, we’ve prayed, we fought, we cried…and now, 2020 is in the history books, replaced by the blank slate of the new year.
It’s a strange feeling in some ways. For me, 2020 was very much a mixed bag. There are some parts that I couldn’t wait to have behind me – watching friends suffer with their health as a result of COVID19; lockdowns; and toxicity brought on by the political climate. At the same token, it was a year of breaking boundaries as well as new beginnings.
On the positive side, I’m thankful more than ever for my health. It’s something we should never take for granted. I was able to work remotely, which is a privilege many people did not have, placing them and their families at risk. Thank you to everyone that went out to work because they were essential; I stand in solidarity with those who were forced due to corporate greed.
2020 was definitely a year of pushing boundaries and taking on new challenges. The biggest challenge for me was running for the office of Miami Dade State Attorney. In the best of times, running for office is intense, back breaking work. I knew it was going to be hard, but there was no real way to know how hard until I was in it. You spend hours on the phone asking for donations; then more time is spent trying to maximize what you have raised in order to get your message out effectively. It became clear to me why many of those in government either come from wealth, or are beholden to special interests who financed their campaigns. It’s simply very difficult to do without financial support. Add on the layer of a global pandemic, where there is uncertainty around people’s financial future as well as the loss of the ability to connect in person at local events or door to door — now it’s uncharted waters.
With all of the hurdles, we managed to leverage social media to elevate the discussion of key issues confronting Miami and America at large in the criminal justice system. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others encouraged national activism; but it also made people look in their own backyards to see what injustices may be occurring. The racial reckoning- painful as it was for me personally to watch people that look like me die for no reason – was a turning point in highlighting why change is needed locally and nationally.
Even though my bid was not successful- the jury is out as to whether I will do it again – it was such an honor to connect with people I never would have met otherwise. It also allowed me to thin out my contact list. Not everyone who says they are there for you really mean it. The lesson is one that is repeated often, but it is welcome in that it clears the path for new relationships to be forged. I am so grateful to everyone who donated, volunteered or assisted in some way. So many folks showed up and showed out – it was really appreciated!!! Special shout out to my beloved husband the Cowboy. His unconditional love and support made this possible.
Continuing on the topic of elections, I cannot wait to attend the swearing in ceremonies of Harold Pryor in Broward County (first African American man to be elected State Attorney in Florida), and Monique Worrell who will continue the legacy of Aramis Ayala as State Attorney in Orange/Osceola County. On a national level, the first African American female will be inaugurated as Vice President. The new presidential administration under Joe Biden will be not only a breath of fresh air, but very needed oxygen for us to rebuild as a country.
My new beginning came in September when I joined Florida International University as the Director of Policy and Programs for the Center for the Administration of Justice. My father always had a saying – “watch how you conduct yourself in the street because you never know who is watching”. The associate director of the Center had been watching my campaign and how I addressed the issues. He texted me on Election night when the results became final, and I began work a month later (after a much needed vacation!). It’s been great to work with prosecutors’ offices to show them how using data and alternative ways to measure success can bring more equity to our communities as well as our system. We are bringing on new offices this year, and will be expanding the work internationally. My greatest goal is to create several test sites as models of real community engagement between prosecutors and the people they serve.
So what is on deck for 2021?
There will be a lot more writing this year (yay!). I published a book on prosecutorial discretion last year; I’ll be continuing to promote it as part of the bigger dialogue as to what is next for the criminal justice system. I’m excited to be able to travel again internationally – for pleasure and for work – once the vaccine is widely available. There will be more work on a grassroots level around criminal justice – raising awareness and empowering people with the information they need to fight for change while holding those in power accountable. Make sure to tune in to Mondays With Melba every Monday at 6pm on Facebook Live. It is also posted later in the week on my Resident Legal Diva Instagram page.
Thank you for being a part of the RLD family. I wish each of you a healthy and prosperous New Year. Please let me know any topics you’d like for me to explore on the blog or via Facebook Live. Let’s make it a great year together!!