Guest Voz: ABA President creates commission examining legal issues of interest to Latinos

LatinaLista — The lack of diversity is still an issue when it comes to certain professions. One of those professions is the legal profession. It was a deficiency that didn’t go unnoticed by the American Bar Association’s current president and first Latino to hold that position, Stephen Zack.

Zack.jpgMr. Zack noticed how underrepresented Latinos were in the legal profession and wondered how that disparity impacts representing legal issues of importance to Latinos in today’s courts.

American Bar Association President Stephen N. Zack

To explore the issue further, Mr. Zack asked the American Bar Association (ABA) to form The Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities.

In the following post, Mr. Zack explains why such a commission is needed and what he hopes its final impact will be, not only on the ABA and legal profession, but Congressional and presidential administration policymakers as well.

 

The latest census numbers confirm what any look around already tells us: the face of America is changing.

More than one in every five children in elementary school is Hispanic. And our population is set to continue its explosion — growing from 18 percent of the U.S. population today to nearly one-third by 2050, making us the largest minority group in this country.

Dynamic change is exciting, and fundamentally American. Time and time again our country has been transformed by new people, inventions and ideas. Sadly but typically, a few try to run from change rather than embrace it. But I believe that the country-at-large will follow the example of my hometown of Miami.

When I arrived as a teenage refugee in 1961, Miami was a small, sleepy Southern town. Today, it is a world-class international city. What happened? The city was altered, grown and influenced by hardworking immigrants and other newcomers who changed the face of the city.

Not all of that went smoothly or easily. When I first started practicing law, another Hispanic lawyer who spoke with an accent was dismissively told by a judge, “Come back when you can speak English.”

IMG_9548A.JPGLeft: Ryan Nunez (victim of police brutality in Nov. 2007), Rebecca Nunez (Ryan’s mother), Altagracia Mayi (son Manuel Mayi was killed in Queens, NY in 1991 and was a victim of racial violence)..This picture was taken after all three testified in front of the commission.

Segregation, formal and informal, was everywhere: women law partners couldn’t eat with their male law partners at the city’s power clubs. African-Americans and Jews were likewise excluded. But Miami broke down the old barriers. Over time, the city’s civic life and leadership structure integrated and included all minority groups. Today the result is pure success.

Now, it’s not my hometown but the profession and justice system I love that must confront its longstanding barriers to diversity and start a serious dialogue on integration and inclusion.

Right now, Hispanics make up almost one-fifth of the population but barely 5 percent of the legal profession. This is unacceptable.

The profession and our courts must reflect the population they serve. It’s both the right and smart thing to do. If we do not, both the profession and our justice system will ultimately lose the respect of citizens and clients.

That’s why I asked the American Bar Association to form the first-ever commission dedicated to looking at legal issues of great interest to Hispanics. The Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities, made up of top Latinos and Latinas from across the country and a wide variety of backgrounds and careers, has been holding hearings in communities with significant Hispanic populations. The commission is preparing to host another hearing in my home city of Miami on May 20.

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A commission like this one is long overdue, and has a big agenda.

It is crucial that our justice system serve the Hispanic population and that America’s lawyers begin to more closely resemble America today.

Commission members listening to testimony

This commission is identifying the greatest problems and barriers between the justice system and the community, and is proposing solutions. Education, criminal justice, access to legal services and language translation are just a few of the issues under the microscope.

It’s meaningful that we’ll host our next hearing on May 20, Cuban Independence Day when exiled Cubans celebrate our homeland’s independence from Spain. The day almost 50 years ago that I fled Cuba, coming to America as a young teenage boy, stays with me like it was yesterday.

Many different factors brought us to this country, and we come from many different parts of the Latino world. But we are united in wanting to improve our country — America –and continue raising up our communities.

It is my hope that the Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities will play an important role in doing that.

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