Advocates of diversity in the bench and bar say they’re pleased with recent advances in Northern Virginia, but questions remain about whether the progress is sustainable. Observers also see work to be done in making other bar groups more representative.
For lawyers in Northern Virginia, signs of change are readily apparent. The current presidents of the Alexandria, Arlington County and Fairfax County bar associations all are African American. The field of candidates for Fairfax County judgeships includes six African Americans, four Hispanic applicants and one Asian American.
“We are definitely making progress with the leadership of our various bar associations,” said Chidi I. James of Fairfax, immediate past chair of the Virginia State Bar’s Diversity Conference Board of Governors.
Candidates for Fairfax County Circuit Court include two African American women, Vernida Chaney, a former president of the Northern Virginia Black Attorneys Association and Tania Saylor, as well as a Hispanic male, Dennis Somech.
General district court candidates include Alberto Salvado, a Hispanic attorney, and Vanessa Jordan, another former president of the NOVABAA.
For the juvenile and domestic relations court, Melissa Sanchez and Kristina Cruz, both Hispanic attorneys, are running, along with three African American women: Melinda Van Lowe, FBA president Donna Banks, and Alexandria Bar president Tamika Jones. Also contending for a JDR seat is Dipti Pitikiti-Smith, an Asian American attorney.
Diversity gains are apparent elsewhere. Besides the Northern Virginia picture, James noted that Roanoke’s Victor O. Cardwell serves as chair of the Virginia Bar Association Board of Governors, a position that puts him in line to be VBA president. Doris H. Causey was president of the Virginia State Bar during 2017-18. Both are Black.
“So, yes we are making progress, but we still have a long way to go,” James said. He noted that before Judge Dontae L. Bugg was elected last year, it had been more than 25 years since another African American was named to the Fairfax County Circuit Court.
G. “Rex” Flynn Jr. – who is president of the Arlington County Bar Association but spoke as an individual lawyer – agreed as to Fairfax’s track record.
“In the larger scheme of things, there have been maybe five African American judges in Fairfax County – ever. And that’s a court with dozens and dozens of sitting judges,” Flynn said.
“Progress is being made, certainly, but there’s not much room for optimism because we’re kind of at the bottom,” Flynn added.
James noted that Arlington has not had an African American circuit judge since Judge William T. Newman was elected in 1993.
James and other advocates questioned whether the recent gains will be sustainable. “If you look at the active membership, what is the level of diversity?” James said.
He noted Cardwell was the only African American face in a recent photo of VBA leaders. He said he’s often the only minority person on calls with the Prince William County Bar Association.
“If we don’t have increases in minority membership in bar associations, the leadership gains are not going to be sustained,” James said.
“If we want to continue to increase the diversity in bar leadership, the bar associations have to be deliberate about recruiting minority lawyers to get involved … , and then mentoring and encouraging them to take on more responsibility within the associations,” James said.
A Northern Virginia attorney called out the VSB Council for a lack of ethnic diversity at its meeting Oct. 23 in Hot Springs. He said he saw no other Hispanic faces and only one African American attendee at the gathering.
“I think we need to work on it a little harder,” Luis A. Perez of Fairfax told fellow Bar Council members, to applause.
In a Nov. 11 interview, Perez said he ran for a third term because otherwise the 81-member Bar Council would have no Hispanic members.
Perez said recruitment and encouragement to boost diversity helps to bring different perspectives and viewpoints, improving the dialogue and decision-making process.
“Bars need to make a little more active effort to diversify themselves, because ultimately it’s good for the bars,” he said.
Tamika Jones agreed. The Alexandria Bar president said advocates have to keep encouraging minority participation and fostering diversity.
“I don’t think it will ever end,” Jones said.