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This past weekend, I visited a League at the far northwestern tip of the United States--only about 50 miles south of Vancouver, Canada--to attend "Access and Justice for All," a three-hour seminar that included a keynote speech, panel discussion, and question-and-answer session to explore diversity and the courts in Washington state. Organized by the League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County, the event packed almost 200 people into airy meeting room in Bellingham, Washington to hear State Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez and his panel colleagues: Deborah Fleck, King County Superior Court Judge and Chair of the Workforce Diversity Committee, which recently published “Building a Diverse Court;” Charles Snyder, Whatcom County Superior Court Judge; and Raquel Montoya-Lewis, Western Washington University assistant professor and Nooksack Indian Tribe Chief Judge. The seminar was moderated by Robbi Ferron, a former tribal member of the League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County.
While attendees enjoyed lunch, Justice Gonzalez spoke about how perceptions of fairness affect our trust in government. He opened his remarks by recounting how alienating it felt to see the countless white faces looking back from the photographs of previous state Supreme Court justices, comparing it to recent federal hearings on contraception coverage that included no women. He cited incarceration rates, high school dropout rates, and other statistics that show systemic racial disparities in Washington. He urged the audience not to get bogged down debating why these disparities persist, but rather to use this information to demand real change. He also gave examples from his time on the King County Superior Court of how a diversity of perspectives helped the court reach better decisions on controversial issues like the serving of federal immigration warrants in state courtrooms. Justice Gonzalez concluded by stating that his own diversity is "not why I want to be on the bench, but it's why I want to stay there."
The ensuing panel discussion delved deeper into diversity on the state courts, exploring how tribal courts, drug courts, court staff, and wraparound services are benefited by reflecting the people they serve. The panel reminded the audience that the courts are the third branch of government, and that access to equal justice under law is a tenet of our democracy.
During the question-and-answer period, the panel addressed how the audience could become involved, urging voters to educate themselves about judicial candidates by visiting votingforjudges.org, a website devoted to nonpartisan voter education on judicial races in Washington. The judges further stressed the need for citizens and organizations to vocally oppose user fees for justice and other proposals that would limit access to justice for the most vulnerable citizens.
Audience members commended the Bellingham League for shining a spotlight on the accomplishments--and the work left to be done--in ensuring that the courts in Washington provide “access and justice for all.”