Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is Justice Blind?

This question was posed to students in Spokane and Seattle in an essay contest sponsored by the WSBA Committee for Diversity

During May, communities throughout Washington state celebrate Law Day with naturalization ceremonies and public events bringing attention to the diversity of our communities. We also introduce the winners of the Washington State Bar Association Committee for Diversity (CFD) Outreach Essay Contest, in which high-school students were asked to write a 500-word essay answering the query, “Is justice blind?”

The CFD Outreach Essay Contest is a new project developed to promote awareness of the benefits of diversity in the legal profession. The project, which targeted high-school students on both sides of the state, was launched in May 2009 as a pilot spearheaded by the CFD Outreach Subcommittee. The purpose of the pilot program was to test the effectiveness of a contest format for outreach efforts aimed at high-school students who may not have considered a career in the law and who may have perspectives on the legal system that will help our profession attract the richly diverse population in our state. Another goal was to expose students to the many facets of a legal career and promote a discussion in their classes of how they, as young citizens, might promote “blind justice.”

The process turned out to be a learning experience for students, teachers, and CFD members, and perhaps a sobering wake-up call for WSBA members and all other members of the legal system who take it for granted that “blind justice” is accepted as a fundamental tenet of our society.

The Essay Contest

Two schools participated in the pilot: Cleveland High School in Seattle and Rogers High School in Spokane. They were selected because of their significantly diverse populations. Both schools have a diverse array of students including those from varied ethnic, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds, as well as students with disabilities. For example, over 70 percent of the students at Rogers are on the federally subsidized lunch program for economically disadvantaged families. As explained by Pat Gibbons, English Department lead and instructional coach and contest liaison at Rogers, many of the students have health issues that affect their ability to learn. In addition, about 17 percent of students are in special education and 25 percent of students are members of ethnic minorities. Some of the students participating in the contest speak English as a second language. Only 30 percent of the students have computers at home, so many lack computer skills because of limited resources and exposure to technology. Teo Cadiente, the lead Cleveland High School teacher for the contest, has a demonstrated interest in social justice issues on behalf of his students. His course discusses social justice issues and he has actively participated in Seattle University School of Law’s Street Law Program.

Outreach Subcommittee members contacted the schools in May 2009. The teacher liaisons — Mr. Cadiente and Ms. Gibbons — enthusiastically embraced the project, which was proposed to them in time to incorporate the essay contest into the 2009–2010 school year lesson plans. The contest was rolled out to the students at the beginning of the school year, in August 2009, and the deadline was Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 19, 2010. The CFD received more than 100 essays from the two schools combined.

The contest asked the students to write a 500-word essay answering the query, “Is justice blind?” They were prompted to discuss whether justice is indeed blind, or whether such things as race, age, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or other “minority” factors are taken into consideration in our legal system. If justice is not blind, they were asked, what changes are needed to make it so? The topic was discussed and the essays were written in English, history, and civics classes as part of the curriculum.

Although the essay prompt asked “Is justice blind?” the topic was presented as broad and encompassing by the teachers who tied in the essay with the curricula being taught in the various classes. Some students chose to take a stand for social justice rather than explore bias specifically in the legal system. All entrants were passionate in their views. Often, the concept of “blind justice,” a familiar metaphor for equality before the law, was interpreted literally by our young writers, i.e., justice does not see or serve those who are poor, of color, from a different culture, or young. However, the essay-contest students’ perspectives may also reflect that this concept may not equally apply in their lives — it is this disparity and the interest to promote equality that the CFD wanted to harness in order to build an interest in the legal profession.

The entire CFD membership and more than 20 volunteers from the WSBA Young Lawyers Division (WYLD) helped grade the essays, which were given scores in the following categories: thesis development and organization, personal link, word choice, voice and style, and grammar. The WYLD membership generously contributed an additional $500 in prize money, allowing the CFD to award a $500 first prize and $250 second prize at each school. Of the two first-place essayists, a grand prize winner was chosen, whose essay appears at the end of this article.

The winners were announced in March at ceremonies hosted by the respective schools. Students from the participating classes, teachers, parents, and WSBA representatives from the CFD and WYLD attended the ceremonies. Student photographers Tony Iszler, from Rogers, and Jazmine Calhoun, from Cleveland, contributed the photographs that accompany this article.

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