Metropolitan Black Bar Association celebrates New York’s black judges for Black History Month
For its celebration of Black History Month, the Metropolitan Black Bar Association (MBBA) honored the impact of New York state’s black judges and the importance of a diverse judiciary during a ceremony at the Thurgood Marshall Federal Courthouse in Manhattan on Thursday.
Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann, Chief Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, welcomed the approximately 40 judges in attendance and MBBA President Paula Edgar introduced the speakers.
“The MBBA is an ardent supporter of increased diversity on the bench,” Edgar said. “More diversity will only lead to a fairer and more just legal system. The MBBA firmly supports a justice system where our jurists reflect the diversity of our great city.”
Speakers included Hon. Ruth Shillingford, president of the Judicial Friends Association (JFA), Hon. L. Priscilla Hall, justice of the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, and Hon. Tanya Kennedy, president of the National Association of Women Judges.
“Black judges have played an important role in the administration of justice throughout the state of New York,” Edgar said. “When we decided to honor them for their impact, I knew there was impact but when you hear it in this way you really understand that we must highlight and elevate this group of people.”
Schillingford spoke about her organization, JFA, an organization of black judges that was formed in 1976, and explained that part of the group’s role is to mentor young attorneys and to advocate for more black judges on the bench. She shared plenty of statistics to show that certain parts of the state, and certain courts, have a long way to go towards achieving diversity.
According to Shillingford, out of 1,265 judges in the state, 164 of them are black. Only one of the seven court of appeals judges in the state are black, just seven of 56 of the judges in the Appellate Division are black, and none of the presiding justices of the Appellate Division are black.
While parts of the city still struggle with diversity, and even certain courts in Brooklyn, the problem is especially bad in upstate New York where just eight of the 141 state Supreme Court judges are black, three of the 78 court of claims judges are black, none of the 25 Surrogate’s Court judges are black and Family Court has just four of 95 black judges, Schillingford pointed out in her speech.
“We will continue to fight. We will not apologize with respect to asking the questions about diversity with respect to African-American judges,” Shillingford said. “It will never be comfortable, I understand that. Our team works to ensure that those of you out there who are now attorneys can look forward to becoming judges.”
Hall discussed the history of black judges and the impact they have made. She discussed Hon. Thurgood Marshall, the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice; Hon. Harold M. Stephens, the first black state Supreme Court justice in NY; Hon. Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman federal court judge; Hon. Mary Johnson Lowe; Hon. George Bundy Smith; and Hon. Sheila Abdus Salaam, the first black woman to serve on the NYS Court of Appeals, and pointed out specific times where their impact was felt.
“Standing or seated next to you are many judges who have continued to have an impact on our community,” Hall said. “They are a part of your history. Introduce yourself to them and learn about their experiences. They will be happy to talk to you and you will be inspired.
“More than ever black judges and lawyers matter and must make an impact,” Hall continued. “Judges Marshall, Bolin, Stephens, Abdus Salaam and George Bundy Smith are gone. It is your time. Don’t miss your turn.”
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