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How One Voluntary Bar Association Addressed the Lack of Diversity on the Bench

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I was president of the D.W. Perkins Bar Association in January 2013, when I spearheaded an initiative to examine diversity on the bench in the Fourth Judicial Circuit.

The first step of the initiative was to research and compile the statistics of judicial nominations and gubernatorial appointments over a 20-year period, beginning in 1994. The statistics confirmed that the lack of diversity on the bench needed to be addressed, and the primary area of concern was the judicial nominating commission for the Fourth Circuit. In Duval, Clay, and Nassau counties, African-Americans make up approximately 25 percent of the population, according to U.S. Census data. However, at the time, only one African-American had been nominated for consideration by Gov. Rick Scott by the Fourth Judicial Circuit Nominating Commission. Indeed, based on the initiative’s independent review of judicial nominations, at that time, the JNC had not nominated an African-American for consideration for the circuit court bench for 20 years.

Next, I wrote a letter to the chair of the JNC with copies to all the JNC members and key leadership within The Florida Bar regarding the lack of diverse nominees. The chair of the JNC, Henry “Chip” George Bachara, Jr., responded immediately with a letter and a telephone call. He acknowledged the lack of diversity and expressed a need for qualified candidates to apply.

To address the lack of diversity on the bench, the D.W. Perkins Bar Association formed a Judicial Diversity Committee. The committee’s task was to aggressively recruit diverse judicial applicants, carefully review their applications, conduct intense mock interviews, and attend the JNC interviews. In addition, the committee conducted mock interviews in preparation for the gubernatorial interview. Thus, not only did our committee identify potential candidates for judicial appointment, we went the extra step in assisting the candidates through each phase of the JNC interview and selection process. The results of our efforts were almost immediate, as two of our identified candidates were nominated for the Fourth Circuit Court vacancies.

Following our nominees’ JNC interviews, but prior to their gubernatorial interviews, I traveled to Tallahassee to meet with the governor’s general counsel, Pete Antonacci. He was very accommodating and explained the appointment process to us. He was interested in the historical data that we provided, and emphasized the importance of applicants continuing to apply even if they are not nominated or appointed on the first try. Interestingly, he noted that telephone calls of support of nominees to the governor’s office were just as effective as letters of support.

Armed with this information, our committee sought out local members of our legal community who were influential with the governor’s office. We then encouraged the nominees to meet with them to gain their support. We also asked members of the community to call or write to the governor’s office in support of nominees.

Over a 20-year period, the JNC had only nominated four African-Americans, and those were for county court seats only. Through our committee’s efforts, over the course of one year, the JNC nominated eight African-Americans, and two were eventually appointed to the bench (one to the circuit bench and one to the county bench).

The local JNC has been supportive of this effort to address the lack of diversity. The members appreciated better-prepared applicants and the influx of new applicants into the process. Before efforts began, JNC interviews were occasionally attended by a reporter, but they never had an audience of lawyers and sometimes citizens interested in the process. Other local voluntary bar associations have started similar judicial committees and follow a similar process for their members.

While our committee’s actions continue to net gains in diversity of nominees and gubernatorial appointments, parity does not yet exist, so we will continue our efforts until our judiciary is a reflection of our community. We must still continue to be very deliberate in our efforts to diversify the bench.

Photo of Leslie Scott Jean-BartLESLIE SCOTT JEAN-BART is a partner at Terrell Hogan Yegelwel, P.A., in Jacksonville where she focuses on personal injury law. She serves on The Florida Bar’s Judicial Nominating Procedures Committee, and served two terms as president of the D.W. Perkins Bar Association.