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October 08, 2021

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Judiciary Highlighted in Standing Committee on Diversity in the Judiciary Program

By Col Linda Strite Murnane (Ret.), Xenia, Ohio

On August 4, during the ABA Hybrid Annual Meeting, the Standing Committee on Diversity in the Judiciary (SCDJ) presented a program highlighting the unique challenges and successes of judges representing diversity, equity and inclusion in action.

The SCDJ is chaired by the Honorable Marcella Holland, retired Circuit Court of Baltimore City judge. The committee works on behalf of the Judicial Division (JD) to inform and educate young people in all grade levels and young lawyers to consider pursuing opportunities to serve the community as a judge.

Through the moving stories of the five diverse judges who participated in the panel, attendees learned of the commitment to overcome barriers and to not just succeed but to excel in the practice of law from the trailblazers who spoke.

Mr. Colemon L. Potts, a partner at the Detroit Legal Group and current Vice Chair of the JD’s Lawyers Conference, skillfully guided the conversation as the five judges on the panel, each representing unique diverse backgrounds, gave us insights into the challenges they faced in coming to the bench, their historical and family journeys that led them to pursue law and a judicial position and the challenges they continue to face in ensuring opportunities for others to join them in achieving a judiciary that matches the unique fabric of the nation.

Former JD Chair Hon. G. Michael Witte (Ret.) shared the story of his grandparents who had been held in internment camps during World War II. Witte became the first Asian Pacific American Judge in Indiana and went on to serve as the Executive Secretary of the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. He has been a tireless advocate for diversity on the bench and has been an active member of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association as well as a leader in the ABA Judicial Division.

The Honorable G. Helen Whitener serves as a justice on the Washington State Supreme Court. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, when Justice Whitener became a lawyer she was not only the first Black attorney, but also the first LGBTQ attorney in her county. She set high standards for herself, noting the importance of consistently being respectful of others and serving as a role model particularly if you are a trailblazer as she was.

The Honorable Allie Greenleaf Maldonado, Chief Judge for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians recounted her first week in law school. She was one of only four Native American students in a class of 900. Attending law school, she recounted being labeled by graffiti which carried the word “tokens” on the bulletin board which was reserved to inform students about Native American events. Judge Maldonado described the tools she used to turn that hostility exhibited by others into motivation to be the best in her coursework. She has carried that tradition with her as she came to the bench.

The Honorable Anne McKeig, a Native American and an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, described how she was inspired by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justice McKeig described opportunity to speak with Justice Sotomayor about her insecurities and described how Justice Sotomayor not only reinforced that McKeig was well qualified, but that her uniqueness was an asset that made the court better for everyone.

The Honorable George Perez shared a common theme for many of the panelists, being the first in their family to graduate from college and going on to obtain a J.D. and become a lawyer. Perez is the retired Chief Judge of the Minnesota Tax Court.

The work of the SCDJ supports ABA Goal III, which is to eliminate bias and to enhance diversity in the legal profession.

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