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February 24, 2010

Race in the robe

Will diversity be maintained as Jefferson County’s black judges face election challenges?

Speaking before a crowd that filled the Capitol Rotunda, Gov. Steve Beshear recently honored the late Justice William McAnulty, the first African-American member of the state’s highest court.

Remembering McAnulty — who died of cancer in 2007 — as one of the commonwealth’s greatest leaders, the ceremony ended with an unveiling of the former justice’s bust, the first sculpture of a black public official displayed in the capitol.

“As the first African-American man to serve on the Kentucky Supreme Court, Justice McAnulty blazed the trail for increased diversity in our judicial branch and beyond,” Beshear said, adding that there’s much greater diversity in courtrooms across the state today as a result.

For a brief period last year, however, Jefferson County had no African-Americans among its 40 judges in circuit, district or family court after two black jurists — Janice Martin and Toni Stringer — retired from the bench. The lack of racial diversity in the county’s court system caused civil rights advocates to petition the governor to appoint qualified African-Americans to the bench.

Last summer, Beshear heeded that call and filled four Jefferson County judicial vacancies with black judges by appointing Olu Stevens and Brian Edwards to the circuit court bench, along with Sadiqa Reynolds and Erica Lee Williams to district court. The move resulted in the greatest judicial diversity in Louisville history, although it’s a statistic that could soon change: All four appointees are facing white opponents in their upcoming re-election bids.

While some observers worry an all-white bench could return, others argue the most qualified candidate should get the job, suggesting experience trumps the need for diversity in the courtroom.

When compared to the number of black defendants who wind up in court, the number of African-American judges presiding over cases is disproportionately lower. In Jefferson County, blacks constitute only 10 percent of the judges yet make up 57 percent of the offenders sent to prison. Given those inequities, civil rights leaders believe it is important that the judiciary better reflect the community.

An all-white bench sends a bad message and it gives credence to the disparities that exist in the system,” says Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP. “However, when you look at the number of African-Americans sentenced from this county, you must take a look at the judiciary, jury selection and the police.”

Given the county’s population is 20 percent black, Cunningham hopes voters will maintain the current level of diversity in local courts.

“No one can deny anyone’s right to run for office, but those who are challenging knew what the stakes were when they chose to enter the race,” he says. “They knew that diversity was an issue.”

But judicial positions are highly coveted seats, a fact that could eclipse the governor’s efforts to increase diversity.

In the race for the 30th district judge seat, Judge Williams faces a serious contender in Christine Ward, a former prosecutor who trumpets more than 15 years practicing law.

Ward resigned from the county attorney’s office last year after County Attorney Mike O’Connell instituted a regulation prohibiting employees from running for office.

When asked whether she chose to run for the 30th district because the incumbent is black, Wards says race had nothing to do it. Rather, it was the fact that the incumbent has considerably less experience.

“I think it’s important we do have diversity on the bench, and it’s a great thing that the governor is trying to promote,” says Ward, adding that she worked for the late Justice McAnulty. “In my particular race, however, it really was a matter of experience … my opponent had only been practicing law for six years when she was appointed. And I’ve been practicing for 15 years.”

Before accepting the appointment, Judge Williams was an associate with the firm of Dinsmore and Shohl. In 2009, she received the University of Kentucky College of Law Young Alumni Professional Award, and in 2008, she was included in the Who’s Who in Black Louisville and the Louisville Bar Association’s Diversity Task Force.

During the appointment process, the Beshear administration says it considered experience and capability, but looked at other professional credentials as well.

“Each of the outstanding judges (Gov. Beshear) appointed offered a broad range of qualifications — from experience in the Jefferson County court system to professional awards to community involvement,” says Kerri Richardson, a gubernatorial spokeswoman. “Each candidate offered a vital mix of talent, education, experience and desire for public service.”

The history of black judges in the commonwealth began in 1885 with Nathaniel R. Harper, who was the first African-American appointed to the bench.

After Harper’s ascension, nearly seven decades passed before another black judge was called upon to serve. Judge Benjamin Shobe was appointed as a Jefferson Circuit Court judge in 1953, albeit only as a substitute and only for one day.

For Judge Olu Stevens, whom Beshear appointed in July 2009, those historical impediments speak to the need for diversity, but he also believes experience and qualifications are crucial.

“We need to make a concerted effort to make sure that those who are qualified to serve put forth their names and state their willingness to serve,” says Stevens, former president of the Louisville Bar Association, who has practiced law for 13 years. “That had been a problem of the past, but isn’t so much an impediment today.”

Kentucky voters first elected black judges in 1969. Today, African-American jurists are fairly successful at holding onto their seats through elections cycles.

During their tenure on the bench, for instance, retired Judges Stringer and Martin handily defeated their white opponents.

“My worry isn’t that I’m facing a white challenger. I don’t want to lose my seat to anyone,” says Stevens. “I understand the concern. However, I don’t see us going back to a time where there was a mindset that we didn’t have the mental wherewithal to serve. It has been shown we can serve on the bench with the same level of distinction that our white colleagues can.”