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ODBA president says lawyers must ‘act now’

Following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a week of protests statewide, the Old Dominion Bar Association has issued a statement urging attorneys to use their power in the legal system to support the “equal justice movement.”

Founded in 1940, the ODBA was created out of the need for African American lawyers to associate for personal and professional growth and, for the past 30 years, has worked to ensure the appointment of African American lawyers to judgeships across Virginia, according to the website.

ODBA President Stacy Lee

ODBA President Stacy Lee

The statement was provided by Richmond lawyers and ODBA president Stacy Lee, who emphasized that she does not believe in making a statement simply because “everyone else is saying something.” She said that this statement is not about reacting to the current political climate; for African Americans, racial injustice has been a lifelong, generational issue.

“Making a statement just for the purpose of saying something will not fix the institutional racism and systematic oppression of black people that has existed in this country for over 400 years,” Lee wrote. “We long for the day where we can move about and attain our goals as freely as our counterparts.”

In an interview with Virginia Lawyers Weekly, Lee said that the nationwide surge in advocating for racial justice is not a “white or black” issue; lawyers across the board were “affected by what happened.” And, as lawyers, they have a duty to push for systematic change.

“As African American lawyers, we need to bring the underprivileged to the forefront,” Lee said. “In the criminal justice system, we are extremely represented.”

That is, other than in the courtrooms, Lee said. Statistical evidence shows that racial disparity in Virginia’s criminal justice system is an ongoing issue. In 2019, black individuals accounted for 66% of all reports of suspicious activity and 71% of all suspicious people, according to the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project.

Lee said that one of the first steps lawyers can take is to ensure that African Americans feel like they have a “fighting chance” when entering a courtroom.

“We go into courtrooms where all of the judges on the walls are white. You still have confederate monuments outside the courthouses,” Lee said. “[African Americans] need to see African Americans on the bench. They need to see that African Americans are representing them. They need to know that the whole system is meant for fairness and quality.”

Lee encourages all attorneys to step up as the moral compass of society; to look at the “most recent string of deaths” and ask: What can we do with our legal system?

“What we can do in Virginia is go down to a general assembly that is ready, willing and able, more than it has been in a long time, to implement some change,” Lee said. “We have to rewrite the laws on our books and infiltrate the minds of our lawyers that walk into the courtroom.”

The Virginia Bar Association and the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association have issued statements following Floyd’s death, as well. The VBA statement reads that the bar group “unequivocally support[s] the peaceful demonstrations that have occurred in the wake of the Minnesota tragedy,” while the VTLA highlighted the need to have “difficult conversations and engage in the introspection necessary to confront our own failings regarding diversity within our membership and leadership.”

Marni Byrum, outgoing president of the Virginia State Bar, said that because the organization is an arm of the Supreme Court of Virginia, it is unable to take public positions on political issues.

However, she encouraged lawyers to remind themselves of the VSB Rules of Professional Conduct, which frames the roles of lawyers as citizens who seek to improve the law and administration of justice and look critically at the quality of services rendered by the legal profession.

“Throughout history, lawyers have been an essential part of the public dialogue and we have to continue to do that, it’s more critical now probably than ever,” Byrum said.

Lee’s statement ends with a reference to Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and Baptist minister who spoke at the memorial service for Floyd on June 4: “For all of those who remain silent as injustice carries the day against a whole group of people who are thought to have the same inalienable rights under the governing documents of this county, just take your knee off of our necks.”

“It’s our responsibility — from our statues outside the courthouse to the picture inside the courtrooms to the unjust treatment of those underserved in our communities — to redirect how we are handling those affairs,” Lee said.

“In this great time in history, some things can be accomplished if we take this time to move the needle. But it has to be done now,” she said.