Diversity, inclusion, access to justice in Connecticut
There is a moral and professional imperative for lawyers to openly identify short-comings in our nation’s legal system and actively work to keep the scales of justice in balance for all Americans. There is, and will always be, room for improvement. This is why the Connecticut Bar Association has committed, for the long-term, to work toward greater diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and greater access to justice for all.
In Connecticut, the greatest immediate challenge we face is the potential erosion of access to justice brought about by the state’s prolonged fiscal crisis. The Judicial Branch of our state government has worked closely with the governor and lawmakers to lessen the effect of budget cuts on the operation of our courts, but if current trends continue, we will reach a point where service reductions will make it more difficult for average citizens to access the court system.
This access to justice issue is critically important, because the judiciary is so fundamental to our system of government and the basic rights included in both our state constitution and the Constitution of the United States. We must vigorously guard against trends that may lead to a two-tier system of justice that favors citizens who possess the time and financial resources necessary over those who do not enjoy those same advantages. In addition, a system that favors or disfavors a party to an action, a witness, juror, staff member, or an attorney based on their identity is one that should be challenged.
The CBA will continue to play a role in advocating for access to justice, the rule of law and diversity and inclusion in the practice of law. The CBA has put a leadership focus on diversity and inclusion over the past several years. The more diverse our profession becomes, the more opportunities we provide for inclusion, the greater our range of perspective. A fuller range of perspective will instill greater confidence in the system as a whole.
Access to the profession continues to be onerous for many. For some, going to law school is a dream, and for others, it feels out of reach. Our diversity and inclusion efforts will explore such barriers from entry to law school and thereafter to the profession.
To that end I created, Pathways to Legal Careers: An Access and Opportunity Pipeline, a mentorship program aimed at recruiting prospective students from diverse and marginalized communities into the legal profession. Pathways has the potential to increase the pipeline to our law schools but we cannot stop there. Challenges with respect to inclusion, accommodations for disabilities, mental health issues, economic difficulties, and other factors often create barriers. Focusing on access to the profession is an essential next step for our diversity efforts. We cannot just hope for diversity without taking steps to seed our system, and grow future generations of potential lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals, who truly represent the diversity of our state’s population.
Current events demonstrate to all of us that after more than 200 years, our democracy is still a work in progress. In fact, it was designed to be so. Our system of justice is a cornerstone of that democracy. We have an obligation to ensure it is accessible to everyone by ensuring it is properly funded and by opening up the legal profession to a full variety of voices.
Karen DeMeola is Assistant Dean for Enrollment and Students at the University of Connecticut School of Law and the newly installed president of the Connecticut Bar Association.