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Beyond Brown, and Thanks!


Jun 2004

This month, we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. One cannot understate the significance of Brown in establishing fundamental rights for the many racial faces which make up this great nation. Brown brought to life the equal protection amendments of our Constitution and projected them into all aspects of our society and our everyday life. While Brown has led to progress in many directions, we have yet to achieve the full promise of our Constitution that Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues envisioned. In two of these areas we can make important advances today: equality in education and the workplace.

Brown was, of course, first and foremost the landmark case about equality in education. It told us the direction we needed to go, and in this last half century we have struggled to fulfill this mission. New York has long tolerated a school funding scheme which disadvantaged minority students in inner-city areas. The State Legislature has institutionalized a complex and inequitable funding structure that for many years has resulted in unequal educational opportunities for most New York students of color. The New York Court of Appeals, in a landmark decision authored by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, has now said that this disparity cannot continue, that the state constitution guarantees a sound basic education no matter where our children reside, and that school funding levels must be adjusted so that New York City schools receive sufficient monies to provide that fundamental right.

The Court of Appeals has charged the Legislature with developing a plan which meets the requirements of our Constitution, and to do so promptly. The Legislature must now rise to this difficult challenge and find the funds and the political will to meet the Court’s mandate and help fulfill the promise and mandate of Brown. Legislative inaction should not require the judiciary to follow-up by court decree and supervision. Rather, it is the Legislature’s role and responsibility to act promptly and with fairness to all of the state’s children, and to allow them their basic right to a sound and equal education.

Today, when students graduate our schools, they enter a workplace in which great strides have been made to include people of various colors and ethnicities, and of both genders. But opportunities continue to be more limited than they should be. We lawyers and judges should practice what we preach. We have the authority to manage our profession to help fulfill the promise of Brown. We should look to our profession and the justice system, and ask how we can provide equity in employment and leadership opportunities, and how we can provide a court system in which all people have meaningful access to justice.

Chief Judge Kaye is to be applauded for her efforts to achieve this goal within the court system. We at the Association of the Bar are also seeking to stimulate further progress in law firms and legal institutions. While much progress has been made in recruiting women and people of color into the ranks of the legal profession, the results with regard to promotion and particularly retention have been particularly disappointing. By the end of 2003, more than 42% of associates at New York City law firms were women and 18% were minorities. But at the partnership level those numbers drop significantly, to 14% for women and 4% for minorities.

The Association recently issued a statement of diversity principles which has been adopted by 90 law firms and other legal employers, to take concrete steps toward retaining increasing numbers not only of women and minorities, but also of other groups that traditionally have been targets of discrimination, and promoting them into leadership positions. In order to help achieve these principles, we are creating a Diversity Office. The Diversity Office will be providing ongoing assistance to legal institutions in the city to help them develop practices which promote diversity. A major priority will be to try to find the reasons for the disappointing retention drain. On May 6, the Association hosted an overflow conference, which included participation by many law firm managing partners and corporate general counsel, that focused on implementing the diversity principles The conference addressed such topics as building a mentoring culture that fosters diversity, developing effective diversity training, and promoting flexibility to accommodate different life choices. Clearly, these are steps along the pathway to the equality we strive for.

In celebrating Brown, we recognize one of the great achievements of our profession and our judiciary. But this anniversary should also be a reminder that the spirit and wisdom of Brown have yet to be fulfilled. And Brown serves as a reminder, especially in these troubling times of terrorism, that the rule of law must be cherished and safeguarded. As Brown reminds us, our profession and our courts – indeed our courts – must have the major role in balancing the rights of citizens with the authority of government.

Postscript

This is my last 44th Street Notes column as your president. I want to thank you for giving me the most wonderful gift and honor a lawyer can have, the extroaordinarily life-enhancing and rewarding experience of being president of our Association. We should all be proud of the nationally-recognized work of our committees and the achievements of our City Bar Fund, and the professionalism and competence of our staff, led by our wonderful Executive Director Barbara Berger Opotowsky and our able counsel, Alan Rothstein. Thanks.

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