We are proud that the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission, the first permanent commission in the nation dedicated to issues of racial and ethnic fairness in the courts, is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The Commission serves as a bridge to justice for the dedicated judges and professional staff who strive to deliver equal justice under the law to every person who comes through our courthouse doors, regardless of who they are or where they come from in life.”
New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore
The Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission (“Williams Commission”) celebrates its 30th Anniversary as a permanent entity in the New York State Court System in June 2021. In the late 1980s, then-New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, increasingly concerned by the lack of diversity in the court system, asked Franklin H. Williams, a renowned civil rights attorney and former Ambassador to Ghana, to undertake an independent and comprehensive study of the court system and its treatment of minorities. The Williams report, highly critical of the way the New York State court system treated people of color, led to major reforms. In June 1991, the New York State Judicial Commission on Minorities, renamed the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission, was established as a permanent entity in the New York State Court System. This month, on the occasion of its 30th Anniversary, the Commission is presenting its Oral History Series sharing excerpts from oral history interviews with several leaders instrumental in the Commission’s formation. The exclusive interviews provide behind the scenes insight into the racial climate and factors that led to the formation of Commission and efforts to sustain the Commission through the years. The interviews will be posted by noon on select days for a four week period on the Court’s Amici podcast site.
The Williams Commission was the first permanent Commission of its kind in this country created to address racial and ethnic fairness in the courts. The Commission has endeavored over the last thirty years to change the perception of race and equal justice in the courts and to increase diversity in the courts. In recognition of the work of the Commission, in January 2021, the Williams Commission was awarded the Advancement of Judicial Diversity Award by the New York State Bar Association for its efforts to promote diversity and inclusion at all levels of the judiciary. The Commission is proud to continue the great legacy of Franklin H. Williams in the pursuit of social justice.
The Commission is also deeply honored that the documentary, “A Bridge to Justice: The Life of Franklin H. Williams”, is among the winners of this year’s prestigious Telly Awards, honoring the best work created within television and across video. The Commission and the NYS Unified Court System conceived and developed the film to honor our namesake for his contributions to justice and equality for all races and to ensure that his story and contributions to civil rights will continue to be shared for generations.
While acknowledging the good work that has been done in the past thirty years and the positive results, the Commission now turns eagerly to the years ahead, especially in light of this country’s recent awakening and reckoning on matters of race. We have been reminded that the pursuit of racial and ethnic fairness and diversity requires constant diligence and watchfulness. In 2020, following the killing of George Floyd and a vile racist Facebook post by a New York State Court officer, New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore appointed Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of Homeland Security under the Obama Administration, as Special Adviser to conduct an Equal Justice Review of the New York State Court System’s policies and practices relating to issues of racial bias and fairness in the New York State courts. The Commission advised and supported Secretary Jeh Johnson in his review of the New York State Courts’ policies, practices, rules, and programs.
On October 1, 2020, the Special Adviser on Equal Justice issued a 100-page report, emphasizing the dehumanizing effect of overburdened, under-resourced, high-volume courts on people of color and on the poor, who disproportionately appear in those courts. The Special Adviser’s Report also noted the presence of racial bias and lack of diversity in management positions within the court system. The New York State Court system has responded with a Strategic Plan involving administrative leaders throughout the courts to implement the recommendations in the Special Adviser’s Report.
The Special Adviser’s Report recognized that the Williams Commission must be supported and incorporated into OCA initiatives to enable all members of the court system to better understand and access to the processes available to combat racial injustice. The Williams Commission has developed an Action Plan for eradicating deep-seeded institutionalized bias and racism. The recent incident of a racist rant by a Family Court clerk has magnified the long-standing issues of racism and bias in the New York City Family system. To confront these issues, the Commission met with some of the stakeholders in the New York Family Court system to begin to strategize to bring about meaningful solutions. The work to eradicate systemic racism is an ongoing long-term process requiring us all to play a critical role for lasting progress.
The Williams Commission’s thirtieth anniversary also comes about in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic wherein the New York State court system was compelled to reduce its day-to-day operations. In March 2020, the Office of Court Administration reduced courthouse traffic by suspending non-essential court functions and by consolidating essential and emergency matters into a limited number of courthouses. The Williams Commission, like the Court, quickly pivoted to virtual operations and was able to expand its outreach to court personnel, bar associations, community partners and local schools and youth groups.
Through virtual programming, the Williams Commission has continued to engage in sustained efforts to make a difference in the court and legal community. Most recently, in April 2021, the Williams Commission, in conjunction with four area law schools, held a conference on Pathways to Equity in Legal Education and the Profession, to discuss ways in which students of color can be better prepared and supported during their journey to become licensed attorneys. Also, in April 2021, the Williams Commission also hosted a “So You Want to Go to Law School” program for court employees interested in attending law school. In May 2021, the Commission held an Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month program entitled, “A Dialogue on Race and Sensitivity,” which included a discussion on the challenges facing the AAPI judiciary and community, including addressing systemic bias and stereotypes in the legal profession and the judicial system and the increased incidents of racism, violence, and harassment amid the pandemic.
To confront jury diversity issues, the Commission will host a virtual Jury Summit Conference, Achieving Equal Justice Through Jury Service on Thursday, June 17, 2021, 9:30 AM – 3:30 PM to provide awareness of the need to ensure diverse jury compositions to better represent the communities in which they serve to ensure equal justice. The sessions at the Jury Summit will discuss a range of issues including implicit bias, jury selection and Batson challenges, and the future of jury selection.
While the pandemic has significantly impacted court users and court staff alike, it has taken a particular toll on communities of color, who are suffering disproportionately and more severely from the virus. And while the court system has developed an extensive virtual operation to permit court users to participate in court proceedings remotely, the crisis has highlighted the digital divide between court users with access to technology and those lacking such access – most of whom are also people of color. The disproportionate impact on communities of color underscores the necessity of organizations like the Commission to ensure the Courts remains aware and focused on issues affecting communities of color.
Last, we would like to acknowledge the dedication and diligence of those who have served as members of the Commission over the last thirty years. The Williams Commission currently includes 28 diverse members, who are judges, attorneys and court administrators appointed by the Chief Judge of the State of New York. We are grateful for their enthusiasm and commitment to developing strategies to make the court system more responsive to the issues faced by people of color in the courts, including litigants and the larger legal community, and to implement recommendations to address those issues. We stand on the shoulders of the previous Chairs of the Commission, Honorable Lewis L. Douglass, Honorable Rose H. Sconiers, and Hon. Richard B. Lowe, responsible for many advances of the Commission and for adeptly guiding the Commission through different administrations. The New York State court system and the legal community owe a debt of gratitude to the Commission’s previous long-standing Executive Director, Joyce Y. Hartsfield, Esq., who for 27 years championed diversity and racial justice in the Courts.
We are proud to welcome our newest Commission member, Hon. Jeffrey K. Oing, Associate Justice, Appellate Division, First Department. Justice Oing is supportive of the goals and mission of the Commission and is committed towards achieving those goals. We encourage the court community to be aware of the Commission members from their respective judicial districts and or nearby judicial districts. Sadly, in this Newsletter, we salute previous Commission member Hon. William J. Davis, who died recently. Without the timeless dedication of Commission members like Judge Davis, the work of the Commission could not be possible.