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BWL Responds to Orange County Bar Association President Baroni’s Inaugural President’s Column on Immigrants

Executive Board of the Orange County Bar Association
P.O. Box 6130,
Newport Beach, CA 92658

 

Dear President Baroni, Officers, and Board of Directors:

We write to you as fellow members of the Bar to express our views concerning the recent statements made by Michael Baroni, 2017 President of the Orange County Bar Association, in the President’s January column of Orange County Lawyer magazine. As we, the Black Women Lawyers of Association of Los Angeles, reflect during this time of celebration of progress and change via Black History and Women’s History Months, we find it both timely and relevant for our organization to bring attention to this matter once again.

We begin by expressing our appreciation for Mr. Baroni’s published apology. We see this gesture as a sincere expression of good will and an invitation to dialogue with the goal of enhancing empathetic communication among members of the Bar.

In order to understand the implications of the original message and the sentiments behind the response, it is important to address why the column offended many of us within the bar. And, since many of our members live, attend lawschool, and practice in Orange County, we thought it important to provide our own response.

First, the column equated public criticism of certain aspects of our national life with lack of patriotism. But patriotism calls upon us to analyze what is wrong and work for solutions. Just as lawyers in the civil rights movement used litigation as a tool to correct injustice, still we must use our critical skills as lawyers to identify and address injustice today. The freedom to challenge inequality, injustice, and unfairness (both perceived and actual) is what makes us Americans. This tradition dates back to colonial resistance in the 18th century and the founding of our nation. Free expression and assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment of our Constitution did not then, and does not now mean an empty right to praise the nation. It includes the right and duty to criticize – especially in the face of injustice.
To this end, we must reject exceptionalism that demands from citizens and immigrants alike an unquestioning acknowledgement that the United States is the greatest nation on earth. On the contrary, our loyalty to our country, indeed our patriotism, demand that we question, analyze, recognize and correct the problems that we experience as a nation – so that we may continue to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty for all.

Second, the column made light of the reality of racism, institutional and individual, in American history and contemporary life. This was deeply offensive to Americans who have experienced it in the past and to many of us who experience it today. Suggesting that cases of police brutality are based on “utterly false factual premises and narratives” disrespects victims and denies the reality of those who have suffered very real and often racially motivated attacks under the color of law. Some of us have first-hand experiences of this nature, or know someone who has.
Indeed, some of them are our clients, and we are duty-bound to represent them zealously, even as against our government. Equally important, generalizations, prejudgment without facts, and dismissive attitudes towards police misconduct create a dangerous environment for everyone, making it difficult to investigate the facts of individual cases and enforce appropriate penalties when justified.

Third, stereotypical depictions of immigrants are demeaning and do nothing to advance the discussion of a significant issue. This country was built, in many respects, by immigrants from around the world. The economic and cultural contributions of immigrants to our nation and our profession cannot be credibly disregarded. In his original statement, Mr. Baroni referred to his father and other European immigrants as models for patriotic behavior.
However, rejection of the value of contemporary non-European immigrants in American life suggests a preference for one category of immigrants over others. Such a hierarchy is unwarranted. In fact, immigrants today are among the hardest working loyal pro-American group among us. Many work in jobs that are underpaid, yet are still grateful to feed their families.

Fourth, as lawyers, we are officers of the legal system and have a special responsibility for the quality of justice. The American Bar Association underscores the dual role of the lawyer-citizen that we all have and the goals we must strive to achieve:

“A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers and public officials. While it is a lawyer’s duty, when necessary, to challenge the rectitude of official action, it is also a lawyer’s duty to uphold legal process. As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession. As a member of a learned profession, a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law and work to strengthen legal education. In addition, a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.” (Preamble and Scope, ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, paragraphs 5-6)

Bar associations play a critical role in cultivating environments of respect for fellow lawyers and the legal system overall. Statements like Mr. Baroni’s, however, suggest to some that mutual respect amongst members does not include them, either because of who they are or because of the clients they represent. The results are potential alienation of attorneys, a chilling effect on diversity and inclusion efforts prioritized by bar associations, law firms and law schools across the nation, and diminished respect for the equal administration of justice.

We are duty bound to respect the legal process, looking at both sides of the story, and avoid statements about motivations and attitudes without evidence. Characterization of those opposed to police abuse and immigrants, based on personal sentiments or prejudice, are inconsistent with the duties of the learned profession and damage public confidence in justice under the law.

Where do we go from here? We find the public response to Mr. Baroni’s statements encouraging, and Mr. Baroni himself has, with humility, opened the door to discussion, collaboration and healing. We believe that it is important to appreciate our various perspectives and to work together to create a more inclusive society. By so doing, we can model better communication and mutual respect among members of the Bar.

We are confident in our ability to reason together and to use our skills to make changes for the better. It is our hope that this letter will support more dialogue in an environment of mutual professional respect. We are happy to sit down with you to discuss ways in which we can assist in furthering this effort. We look forward to hearing from you soon.

 

Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, Inc.

 

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