Franklin Hall Williams: New York attorney, associate of Thurgood Marshall, civil rights leader, diplomat, organizer of the Peace Corps and its first African-American director, United Nations representative, foundation president, and for us, most pointedly, chair of the New York State Judicial Commission on Minorities, the first court-based commission on minorities in the United States. He was a visionary and a trailblazer who devoted his life to the pursuit of civil rights. His enduring legacy, the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission, continues to promote racial and ethnic fairness in the courts. Last year, a film honoring the life and contributions of Franklin H. Williams debuted in select locations throughout New York State. The film was the vision of the Commission’s former Executive Director Joyce Y. Hartsfield, who retired last year after 27 years of service to the Commission, and John Caher, the Unified Court System’s Senior Advisor for Strategic and Technical Communications.
More than thirty years ago, Franklin H. Williams was tasked with conducting a comprehensive study of the treatment of minorities in the courts and legal profession. His report detailing the biases and systemic racism in the courts led to the permanent establishment of this Commission. Recent events, however, have made it abundantly clear that we are still a long way from achieving racial and ethnic equality.
We applaud Chief Judge DiFiore’s appointment of Jeh Johnson, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and General Counsel for the Department of Defense under the Obama Administration, to conduct an independent review of issues of systemic racism in the courts. We welcome the opportunity to develop new mechanisms to address systemic wrongs. Indeed, the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission joined with the Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission to publish an article in the New York Law Journal about our renewed commitment to the mission of our respective Commissions in ensuring diversity and justice. Notably, the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission supports State Senate Bill S07703, which would require the compilation of diversity statistics on the judiciary and the submission of an annual report by the Chief Administrator of the New York State Courts. Statistics will provide critical guidance as to where to implement diversity efforts.
In this newsletter, we highlight a recent virtual seminar “Hate is a Virus Too”, sponsored by the Commission in partnership with the Council For Unity, which addressed hate crimes and resources and solutions to address this issue. It was noted that there has been an increase in hate crimes during the COVID pandemic, particularly against Asian Americans. At the end of the seminar, a young student shared her experience of being racially profiled while shopping and having a security officer follow her around the store. One of the judges recalled having a similar experience several decades earlier while he shopped. These indignities must end.
Additionally, continued redress of previously legalized racism is necessary to ensure trust in the justice system. This newsletter also looks at the recent posthumous admission of William Herbert Johnson, the first African American graduate of Syracuse Law School in 1903, to the New York State bar. Mr. Johnson had been denied bar admission like so many other attorneys of color because of his race. We must never miss the opportunity nor underestimate the importance of redressing such wrongs.
In this issue, we also share pictures from some of the induction ceremonies for judges of color recently elected to the bench. Judicial diversity ensures that all our voices are heard and that a myriad of perspectives are considered. The Commission’s Judicial Mentor Program Committee recently invigorated its mentoring program pairing scores of judges who have volunteered to be mentors with attorneys aspiring to the bench. It is our hope that this will provide a pipeline for judicial diversity throughout New York State.
The Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission recently passed the torch from our long-time dedicated Executive Director, Joyce Y. Hartsfield, now retired, to our new Executive Director, Mary Lynn Nicolas-Brewster. In this issue, we reflect on the monumental career of Ms. Hartsfield and introduce Ms. Nicolas-Brewster and the fresh energy and commitment to diversity and racial and ethnic fairness in the courts she brings. We also welcome five new Commission members to assist us in our mission to promote racial and ethnic fairness in the courts. The new Commission members are featured in this newsletter. We close this issue by celebrating some of the recent promotions of persons of color in the court.
As the country enters this moment of reflection, the Commission looks forward to its thirtieth year as a permanent entity in the New York State Courts committed to ensuring equal justice for all. As we reach this milestone, the Commission will continue to push for continued progress towards a fair and equitable justice system.