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Vote on diversity proposal set for Thursday

Debate at the Virginia State Bar meeting Thursday on a proposed diversity initiative could be lively if written comments sent to the VSB are any indication.

More than 60 letters were submitted, with opponents outnumbering proponents by about 3-2.

While most of those writing in opposition to the diversity initiative supported by the Virginia State Bar leadership did so for philosophical reasons, one opponent had an institutional argument.

The opposition may be more surprising than the basis for it because the opponent, Thomas A. Edmonds, was the administrative head of the VSB for 19 years before retiring in December 2007.

Edmonds will become a member of VSB Council representing Henrico County on July 1, but he won’t be able to vote when council takes up the issue at the VSB annual meeting in Virginia Beach.

The diversity initiative has three components:

- addition of the promotion of diversity in the administration of justice and the practice of law to the VSB mission statement;

- amendment of the powers of the VSB Council to include encouragement and promotion of diversity in the profession and the judiciary; and

- creation of a Diversity Conference that would have the same status as the VSB Senior, Young Lawyers Local Bar Association conferences, including membership of the chairman of the conference on the VSB Council and executive committee.

Edmonds said he personally favors enhanced diversity in the profession, but “it is apparent from the passionate, sometimes vitriolic comments submitted by a large number of fellow Virginia lawyers these proposals are very controversial and engender significant concerns and disagreements on many fronts.”

The U.S. Supreme Court indicated in Keller v. State Bar of California in 1990 that “a unified bar cannot use bar staff or resources to carry out programs or take positions with which there is significant disagreement among bar members who are required to pay dues to the bar.”

Adopting the proposals might well lead to a federal lawsuit challenging them, he said.

Even if the plan to have the conference finance its operations with non-dues resources warded off such a suit, “in my experience programs or activities that use no staff time or bar resources are unlikely to be effective,” he wrote.

He said state law schools and voluntary bar groups “are the places to leave the noble objectives sought by our current president and the members of the task force.”

Many of the opponents saw little nobility in the proposals. “To most of my peers, ‘diversity’ is that word chosen by someone as a nicer and more appropriate appellation to cover what we had previously called racism, gender bias and lifestyle bias,” wrote Colin J.S. Thomas Jr. of Staunton.

Joseph W. Stuart of Fairfax wrote that state law “specifically prohibits the preferential or detrimental treatment required by ‘diversity’ and, in doing so, allows for a true flourishing of freedom and independence and the enjoyment of life and liberty and happiness envisioned by the opening words of the Virginia Constitution, without regard to the superficial and irrelevant characteristics of color or race or sex.”

Several correspondents criticized the lack of a definition of the term diversity and contended that if it was not a term of art for affirmative action and quotas, then it was so nebulous as to be meaningless.

Proponents such as Old Dominion Bar Association President Beverly A Burton disagreed sharply. “Far from promoting discrimination, diversity encourages inclusiveness and enriches the legal profession in numerous ways by bringing together people from difference backgrounds and experiences – different socioeconomic, educational, geographical, racial, religious, ethnic, cultural and familial backgrounds, and different ages, sexes and sexual orientations, for example,” she wrote.

Burton and officers of the Virginia Women Attorneys Association and the Hispanic Bar Association of Virginia wrote letters to Virginia Lawyers Weekly supporting the proposal that appear in today’s edition.

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