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Editorial: Not as separate, still not quite equal

Later this month the Virginia State Bar Council almost certainly will vote to give the VSB’s Diversity Conference a seat on its governing body, the Executive Committee.

The DC took care of some housekeeping amendments requested at the February meeting, so it will get the seat, similar to the other three VSB conferences: the Young Lawyers Conference, the Senior Lawyers Conference and the Conference of Local Bar Associations.

But that’s not enough. The seat on the executive committee may make the DC not as separate from the other conferences, but it still will not be quite equal.

The vote to place the president of the DC on the Executive Committee gives the conference a seat at the table, but it still has to pay for its own dinner. The DC has to raise its own funds to operate. The other three get money from the VSB’s annual budget.

It is time to make the Diversity Conference a full-fledged conference on equal footing with the others. It is the right thing to do.
The Diversity Conference was founded in 2010 amid controversy. Then-VSB President Manuel Capsalis championed diversity, arguing that the legal profession needed to reflect an increasingly diverse population in the commonwealth.

This notion was hardly revolutionary, but opponents hurled accusations of political correctness at Capsalis. The VSB Council debated establishing the DC for two hours, ultimately passing the measure and sending it to the Supreme Court.

There was a compromise, though – the DC had to pay its own freight. Its opponents murmured threats of a lawsuit based on Keller v. State Bar of California, a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court case holding that a unified bar can’t use bar funds for political purposes opposed by a significant number of members. Although the DC wasn’t chartered as a political entity, taking away VSB cash made the deal work.

When the Supreme Court approved the VSB petition to establish the Diversity Conference, it was with the understanding that “the conference is not funded through bar dues, but through outside grants and funds obtained through conference initiatives.”
Fast forward three years.

Opposition to the DC apparently has waned. The VSB sought comment on the proposal to give the DC a seat on the Executive Committee. Thirty people wrote in; two opposed the idea.

The DC has been a model citizen in performing good works. As for the worry about political activity, here is a selection of the DC’s projects:

A symposium on diversity at the U.Va. law school. Hosting and presenting the “Rule of Law” program at schools across Virginia. Participation at minority pre-law conferences at state colleges. Working with the Immigrant Assistance Project to ensure that the legal needs of all Virginians, including those of diverse origins, are met.

At the VSB meeting in June, the DC will host a program on “Diversity and the Rule of Law,” featuring panelists from across the ideological spectrum.

None of these activities sounds political.

Leesburg lawyer Peter Burnett, leader of the Diversity Conference, said that in reality there are only two things that separate the DC from the other conferences: The seat on the executive committee and bar funding.

The seat is likely to happen. We urge all members of council to vote for the proposal.

As for funding, in the latest VSB annual budget, the Young Lawyers get about $92,000. The Senior Lawyers get $25,000. The Local Bar Associations get about $24,000.

In a multimillion-dollar budget maintained by the VSB, surely there is $25K for the Diversity Conference.

The conference has the approval of the Supreme Court, which allowed the DC with the proviso that no bar funds support it.

It’s time to make the DC a full-fledged conference, complete with bar funding.

The council member who makes the motion to send a new petition to the Supreme Court will earn the respect of all who care about the words “created equal.”

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