The Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took an extraordinary step last week, issuing a public letter to members of the Judiciary and the Bar acknowledging that African-American lives are often not treated “with the dignity and respect accorded to white lives” in the U.S., and proposing strong action by judges and lawyers to create a “just, fair and peaceful society.” The letter, signed by all seven justices, specifically called for judges to look anew at what they are doing – or failing to do – to root out any conscious or unconscious bias in the courtroom, to “create in our courtrooms, our corner of the world, a place where all are truly equal.”
Lawyers, too, were urged to take strong action.
Those front-line members of the legal system were urged to examine their own efforts – or lack thereof – to provide legal assistance to those who cannot afford it, and to “diminish the economic and environmental inequalities rising from race,” along with ensuring that law offices not only hire attorneys of color, but also truly welcome them into the legal community.
The Court did not stop with calls for change in individual courtrooms, minds and law firms, but further urged members of the legal community to reexamine why, all too often, the criminal justice system itself fails to treat African-Americans the same as white Americans, and to recommit to the “systemic change” needed to make equality under the law a reality for all.
“This must be a time not just of reflection but of action,” the justices state, acknowledging that this will involve “difficult conversations, challenging introspections, hard decisions.”
In its own “first step” in solidarity with the justices and those everywhere working to change the legal reality to one where all are truly equal, Cain Hibbard & Myers has made a special contribution to Community Legal Aid and to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and invited fellow members of the Berkshire Bar to join it in answering the SJC’s call. “We ask that you join us in affirming our solidarity with those across the nation who demand justice for victims of violent racism,” the firm’s letter to members of the Berkshire Bar Association states. The letter urges other members of the bar to join the effort by donating to Community Legal Aid, which serves the legal needs of low-income residents of Western Massachusetts, or to another organization that is on the front lines of this work.
The first court to recognize gay marriage in this country, not surprisingly, appears to be at the forefront of the issue of racial injustice, which has come up with renewed vigor following the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota in late May. A police officer, identified as Derek Chauvin, kept his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, even after Floyd lost consciousness.
Floyd had been accused of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, according to the New York Times. Videos of the incident show multiple officers, including Chauvin, taking actions that violated the policies of the Minneapolis Police Department and left Floyd unable to breathe, as he and onlookers called for help, the Times reported.
Floyd’s death has sparked protests around the country about police brutality, particularly toward individuals of color, and racial injustice, including peaceful demonstrations in Western Massachusetts, including in Pittsfield, Great Barrington, North Adams and Springfield.
In a quote that closes the SJC’s letter, Martin Luther King Jr. described these issues effectively and poignantly, even though he wrote these words from Birmingham Jail in a letter dated over 50 years ago, on April 16, 1963:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”