Does The Florida Supreme Court Hate Diversity?

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.

This piece originally ran in the Daily Business Review. You may see the order from the Florida Supreme Court here.

My Unlikely Decade of Transitions: Prosecutor – Writer – Activist – Beyond?

Greetings Fam,

Wow, today is the end of an era.

For me, the last ten years have been a period of major growth. In the last decade:

I met and married my soulmate…

The Cowboy & I at the 2017 Indianapolis 500

I found my voice, stride, confidence and purpose. It took a few setbacks and closed doors to realize what direction I should go; but all of the disappointments came together to lead me to this place.

Speaking on South African television in 2019 on gender based violence

I became President of the National Black Prosecutors Association which exposed me to real criminal justice reform work – from sitting in the houses in our community to sitting in the (Obama) White House. I saw the injustices that got perpetuated not necessarily from ill intent, but from not knowing any better (myself included).

I made the big leap of leaving a comfortable sixteen year position as a prosecutor to becoming Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida. My viewpoints on life were vastly broadened — from learning about the struggles of the transgender community to deepening my work on criminal justice reform and its intersection with voting rights.

I traveled to the Motherland. This year I had life changing trip to South Africa, where I walked in the path of the late great freedom fighter/leader Nelson Mandela. During that time, not only did I see the roots of what would become an international resistance movement, I was able to advocate for the safety of women on an international scale.

South Africa 2019

I survived heartbreak and heartache of losing my mom; but also learned to jealously guard my mental health.  Life will throw things at you that you believe you can never overcome. There will be days you can’t get out of bed. But day by day, step by step, it gets better. Be patient, and seek help from a professional if you need it.

Losing her also taught me to be fearless. Life is short; “sit and wait your turn” means you may never get a shot. Seize the day, make your own path and opportunity. Because you may look up and realize that you have less time than you planned on, and what then? Sit in regret? Nope, not me!

My mother and I at on my wedding day in 2012. RIP Mama P.

As we begin the dawn of a new decade, let’s take one final trip down memory lane on the Resident Legal Diva.  It’s been such a blessing to be able to write, and share my thoughts with a wider audience. I admit I did not post as much as in previous years — lots going on — but thank you for the love that was received for my writing this year!! Here’s what you read the most from me:

5. Legal Divas of Color: Jewel Lafontant – Mankarious

Every Black History Month, I feature female trailblazers of color in the field of law upon whose example I built upon.  Jewel Lafontant – Mankarious made history as a trailblazer in the field of prosecution.

4. “You’re So Articulate” Is Not A Compliment to a Woman of Color

This is a piece that continues to resonate with so many professionals of color. It started with an argument on Twitter (yes, this is definitely something to be left in the last decade) where a fellow attorney tried to explain to me that I should not be offended. At the end of the day, folks need to accept the following: if someone tells you xyz is offensive, don’t double down and keep doing it.  Just..stop.

3. Jay Z Was Right: We Need to Gentrify Our Hood

Jay Z received backlash over a few things in 2019; this one I don’t believe was justified at all.  As we look at economic equality and gentrification, people of color are always on the receiving end of the push out, and never on the benefits.  When gentrification arrives, it’s people of color who have to move further away from their jobs or conveniences we take for granted. Companies expand into newly gentrified neighborhoods, but it does not provide the jobs and economic advancement for the people who originally lived there.  So now what? More incentives should be provided so that people do not have to leave their neighborhoods. And, as people of color get more means, we need to buy up the block so that no one else does. We have to empower our own neighborhoods — as well as protect our history.

2. Kim Foxx Was Not Wrong: The Lonely Road of a Prosecutor of Color

The Jussie Smollett case garnered a great deal of attention on the role of a prosecutor — and how discretion should be used.  I analyzed the case in the context of having done this work. Was everything handled perfectly? No, nothing ever is.  But the backlash was excessive, and rooted in racism.

And the #1 post on RLD for 2019 is:

Legal Divas of Color: Cheryl Mills!

Cheryl Mills is known for her defense of President Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearing. She is the first African American to address the United States Senate in her capacity as Associate Counsel for the President.

Clearly my readers love the posts on history, and I will endeavor to share more in the coming year!

More challenges lie ahead in the next few years, but I am excited to be able to continue serving the greater good and putting my criminal justice expertise to work.

Wishing you an amazing New Year and new decade. Thank you for reading, your comments and your support. May you find prosperity, happiness, and grow in your purpose!!

Exploring Bail Reform

Greetings RLD Family, 

In the final days of the year (as well as the decade!) I’ve been working on the issue of bail reform. It’s sad to think many people will be spending the holidays behind bars due to poverty — not because they have been found guilty of a crime. There are some solid models around the country on how to reduce this. Please see my latest in the Florida Phoenix  on how we can make our bail system more equitable. 

grey steel grill
Photo by Cameron Casey on Pexels.com

Bail reform has received a lot of buzz lately.

Numerous states have implemented or are studying ways to make pretrial release systems more fair and effective, while improving public safety.  Taxpayers are saving tens of millions of dollars otherwise wasted by keeping people unnecessarily locked up. So far, Florida is behind the curve.

Monetary bail – also known as bond – is designed to ensure that individuals who are arrested will appear in court for their scheduled court date.

In order to benefit from our current bail system, individuals who have been charged with crimes, but have not yet had their day in court and have not been found guilty of any wrongdoing, must pay approximately 10 percent of the total bond issued by the court to a bondsperson in order to return to their lives and families, pretrial.

The underlying premise is “come back or lose the money,” but the devil is in the details, as those relying on bondsmen lose their money regardless. The 10 percent is not returned, even if the person complies with the terms of release and/or is found not guilty.

This raises significant concerns over who actually benefits from this system. Should an individual who has not been convicted of any wrongdoing have to pay in order to secure their freedom pretrial?

Read the rest here.

Cyntoia Brown is Home. Now What?

Greetings RLD Family,

Lacy Atkins (The Tennessean via AP, Pool)

Cyntoia Brown, who garnered the support of many celebrities as well as grassroots activists, is now back home. She was serving a life sentence for a murder she committed in self-defense as a teen. Cyntoia was a victim of sex trafficking, but was not treated as such by the criminal legal system. But once the fanfare dies down, where is the support to help her and other folks coming home from prison? This type of re-entry support is critical to help prevent recidivism (returning to jail for new crimes).

See my thoughts on the issue in theRoot.com. I was also interviewed by Buzzfeed – see the video here.

Share your thoughts in the comments!

Before We Wrap — A Quick Rewind!

Courtesy of CreateHerStock

Hi RLD Fam,

I think the theme for 2017 was WTH??? Definitely life as we knew it changed dramatically. It was a mixed bag — we saw a rise in hatred, but we also saw a rise in people fighting back. People raised their voices as a collective to say “this is not what America stands for”.

Now that the year is coming to an end, I actually had a moment to breathe, and acknowledge that my posts have not been as consistent as I would like. No excuses – just reality!

My new job at the ACLU of Florida has been amazing. With it, I received a very steep learning curve, of which I am still on the front side. However, I am learning from the best team in the country, so hopefully I’ll make more strides next year! The transition from prosecutor to full time social justice warrior has been interesting. I miss the courtroom and being able to work with victims of crime. But a whole new world has opened up to me. I get to speak regularly on issues that I care deeply about, with no fear of repercussions. I can keep it “100”, which is so refreshing. I’ve been writing for work as well — check out my death penalty piece in the Tampa Bay Times, as well as my work in support of State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s discretion in death penalty cases.

In the process of this new journey, I have not been able to share as much as I would like to on the blog.

There is also an emotional piece. When I was a prosecutor, discussing social justice issues was not my main job. I infused it when I could, but it was not a daily act. Now that it is my job, and in the current toxic environment, it’s become harder, and sometimes exhausting.

It’s no longer about educating folks on the system.

It’s now having basic discussions like Nazis are evil, pedophilia is a crime, and we need to believe victims.

It’s not about debating the finer points of policing. I’m now having to discuss my basic humanity as a person of color.

It’s left me like WTH? How did we get here?

But we were always here. It was artfully hidden by pretense, political correctness and the false sense of complacency after the election of President Obama.

So what now?

I keep fighting, keep resisting. I pledge to you to continue to bring you quality content when I can. But, the new year awaits — one of my goals is to focus more on writing — not just for RLD, Huffington Post and Blavity, but for newspapers as well. In order for me to grow as a writer, I need to be more intentional about how I work. Stay tuned!

keep calm surprises

Before we close the year that was, let’s take a look at the top 5 pieces on the Resident Legal Diva for 2017! Be sure to click the link in the title to see the original post.

5. I’m Angry and Ready, Now What?

This piece was in response to folks saying to me “Melba, what can I do? How can I fight?” These resources will be evergreen for the next few years.

4. #MeToo Is Not Just Hollywood’s Problem

I shared my personal experience with sexual harassment, which was super tough to do. I realized that I’m a wee bit more of a private person than I first thought; but it was critical (in my opinion) that more voices be heard. It originally appeared in Blavity, and received a ton of feedback wherever it was shared. As Gabrielle Union stated, and as we learned from the revelations coming from the floor of the Ford factory, sexual harassment is not a rich white woman Hollywood problem. It is a disease of power and entitlement — which can take many forms.

3. “You’re So Articulate” is not a Compliment to a Woman of Color

#BlackWomenAtWork was trending on Twitter, and many of us shared experiences of how some folks can be dismissive or downright insulting of our abilities, I shared how “you’re so articulate” is not a compliment — it’s backhanded at best and based in the stereotypes of where or how a woman that looks like me should be in life.

2. 1st African American Head Prosecutor Wrongfully Removed

2017 saw the first African American elected prosecutor in Florida take office. She took the stance that she will not seek the death penalty in any murder case in her jurisdiction. Governor Rick Scott promptly took away her death penalty eligible cases, and the legislature later cut funding for her office. I believe that his was a gross overreach of his power — it should be the voters who decide what direction their community and their public servants go in. Prosecutors are given wide discretion for a reason; re-election (or not) is the way to send a message as to what is acceptable.

And — the most popular piece for 2017 is:

My New Normal Post Philando Castile

I shared my disturbing encounter with a law enforcement officer in the Huffington Post as well as the RLD. It was my personal reminder that following the rules to the best of your ability does not guarantee your safety as a person of color; this is NOT the way it should be.

 

Thank you to each and every one you who have supported, commented, read, shared, and suggested post ideas. As I enter my 5th year of the RLD, I look forward to making it stronger while continuing to educate folks on life and the law! If you have a question or a topic you want me to write about, tell me in the comments or contact me.

The Cowboy & I in Stowe, Vermont for Christmas

Happy New Year!!!