Texas’ top judges concerned about trust in criminal justice system

Letter from Nathan Hecht and Sharon Keller welcoming attendees to the Beyond the Bench summit

A daylong summit on race in the justice system for Texas judges recently held in Dallas was initially supposed to be 20-minute shorts aired nationally on the Public Broadcasting Service.

“But we’re different here in Texas,” said Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas at the December summit in Dallas. “We decided instead just to invite all the judges.”

Personal invitations from Hecht and Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, were enough to summon 50 Texas judges out of their courtrooms on a weekday and into a heavily secured auditorium at Paul Quinn College. Total attendance at the summit was about 200.

The need for the curriculum – whether in televised shorts or taught live – arose in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and riots that followed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Hecht said. Over the past 12 months, he said, the Conference of Chief Justices has been working on how to keep the community from distrusting courts.

“We need to be proactive about trust issues and to enhance trust,” Hecht said. “We’re concerned about how courts are affected by mistrust.”

He opened the summit with a montage of news footage from high-profile shootings by and of police, then asked attendees to reflect quietly. Otherwise, the day was completely packed by the summit’s planners, including state supreme court Justice Eva Guzman – the wife of a Houston police sergeant and daughter of immigrants – with interesting speakers.

“A single day is certainly not enough time to restore complete trust in the justice system,” Guzman said, adding she hoped attendees realize how their life experiences affect how they handle things.

Keynote speaker Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo implored attendees to be courageous, bold and to “put away broad brushes. Don’t be afraid to lose your job.”

The theme of courage united several of the day’s diverse speakers and panel participants, like Emily Thompson, a Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer who is back to work after her husband was killed in an ambush attack along with four others officers last summer.

Arielle Clarkson, a Paul Quinn student, said the strangulation of her brother by a police officer 10 years ago “shattered my understanding of what it meant to be protected by the police.” She hopes to become a lawyer to address injustices.

At St. Paul United Methodist Church in Dallas, a program called Together We Learn tries to bring the community and law enforcement together for things like basketball games so their interactions aren’t always negative.

“The harsh reality is, people of color, when we see the police, we think something’s wrong,” Senior Pastor Richie Butler said. “We have to change perceptions and see people for who they really are – humans.”

Cornell Law School professor Jeffrey Rachlinski said even the well-intended have biases and lectured on human beings’ decision-making processes. He advised judges to start recording demographics and outcomes of their cases so they are more aware of disparities.

(Rachlinski’s suggestion was one of two I heard throughout the day on how to improve trust in the courts; the other was an idea from Hecht for trial judges to explain their rulings.)

To demonstrate how underlying biases may affect juvenile justice, former state judge and professor F. Scott McCownmoderated a panel of experts who told the audience what would happen to a hypothetical foster child who got in trouble at a new school. Sadly, most panelists concluded the youngster would eventually end up in jail.

“We have to get past race,” said criminal defense attorney Carmen Roe of Houston, a panelist whose pretend-task it was to defend the troubled foster child.

“How do we make changes? One person at a time,” said Dr. Griselda Villalobos, a licensed clinical social worker in El Paso who regularly works with children in and out of the system.

Although most of the day’s dialogue pointed out problems that lacked solutions, attendees seemed pleased they were there. As the summit closed with remarks from Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship’s Senior Pastor Tony Evans, sunlight streamed through the oatmeal-colored floor-to-ceiling drapes that had separated the day’s events from the campus and surrounding deprived neighborhood.

“We are looking at a fraying society,” said Evans, analogizing that high-profile shootings are like cracks in the walls of a home with a failing foundation. “If we get the one thing right, it can solve many things.”

Article also posted on the blog Grits For Breakfast. 

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