In its 1990 report to the Judicial Council, the Advisory Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts revealed that very little is known about issues affecting women of color as they interact with the justice system, but stressed that this area is critical to any study of racial and ethnic bias in the courts. To staff's knowledge, no major research has been undertaken on the subject by any other court system in the United States.
Drafting of the La Placita Manifesto
In 1992, the National Consortium of Commissions and Task Forces on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts began discussing the possibility of a national conference on eliminating bias in the state courts. After a sizable grant was awarded to the consortium by the State Justice Institute (SJI), the consortium, in conjunction with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), planned a national conference to address this issue.
The First National Conference on Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in March 1995. The NCSC had anticipated that 150 participants would attend. Instead, approximately 450 participants attended the conference. Among the multitude of workshops held during the conference, no workshop dedicated to issues affecting women of color was offered. To remedy this oversight, some participants organized an informal gathering at La Placita Restaurant in downtown Albuquerque. Only a few people were expected to attend, but, eventually, approximately 50 conference attendees, women and men, participated in the discussions.
One of the byproducts of the meeting was the La Placita Manifesto. The manifesto was presented to the conference delegates and approved by unanimous action as the work plan for exploring issues affecting women of color in each consortium-member state.
Studies on women of color and the justice system
As part of its 1997 final report to the Judicial Council, the Advisory Committee on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts included a chapter on women of color in the justice system. The report reviewed information from reports of other state task forces, its public hearings, and public hearings conducted by the Advisory Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts.
The report demonstrated that some nonwhite women attorneys in the work environment faced sexism and something more. In addition, a study conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) to solicit the opinions and experiences of minority women lawyers throughout the United States found, in part, that being a woman of color is a double negative in the legal marketplace. Further, the results of a demographic survey conducted by the advisory committee pointed to the small number of minority women judges and top-ranking administrators in the California courts. The perception that women of color face a double negative was confirmed during the public hearings when some lower-level, minority women court administrators voiced their concerns about opportunities for promotions.
Although two women of color sit on the state's highest court and the number of court executive officers (CEOs) and assistant CEOs who are women of color is steadily increasing, the number of women of color who are judges and court executive officers continue to be a small percentage of the total number of persons occupying those positions.
It is important to address these gender and racial issues in light of California's changing demographic profile. According to the 1990 data of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, by 2025, persons of Hispanic origin, who may be of any race, would comprise 43.1 percent of California's population. Non-Hispanic African Americans would comprise 5.4 percent, and non-Hispanic American Indians, Eskimos, Aleut, Asians, and Pacific Islanders would comprise 17.8 percent of the state's population. As these population figures change, it is anticipated that the demographic profile of the courts will also change with women of color assuming a greater number of positions of leadership.
1998 roundtables on women of color and the justice system
In 1998, the Access and Fairness Advisory Committee conducted two roundtable discussions on the issues that affect women of color in the justice system. The participants of the first roundtable consisted of judicial officers and court personnel who are women of color. They discussed the specific issues of concern to them by ascertaining the workplace experiences of minority women court personnel and distinguishing the problems facing women of color from those facing majority women and minority men.
During the second roundtable, the participants explored, in more detail, the critical issues raised during the first roundtable. They reviewed preliminary recommendations drafted by the participants of the first roundtable and developed a course of action to implement the recommendations.
As a result of these two roundtables, the Access and Fairness Advisory Committee established a Women of Color Subcommittee.
Statewide Conference on Women of Color
In May 2000, the Women of Color Subcommittee, in conjunction with CJER, held a statewide conference in Costa Mesa, California, that focused on women of color as court leaders and managers. Over 80 participants, both men and women, attended. The attendees consisted of judicial officers, CEOs, court administrators, court managers, law school representatives, and Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) staff. The subcommittee recruited a carefully selected faculty from nationally recognized leaders of the legal community to provide guidance and substance to the topics identified for the conference.
After panel discussions on the first day of the conference, the participants were divided into several working groups on the second day to address the following issues:
Based on these issues, each working group was charged with developing an action plan. The groups began their working sessions by identifying the challenges they believed women of color must still overcome and identifying internal and external barriers to meeting those challenges. The groups proceeded to develop strategies for overcoming those barriers, estimated the costs associated with each of these strategies, and identified departments, divisions, or partnerships that would be needed to implement these strategies. The groups completed their action plans by developing a timeline for the implementation of each strategy.
At the conclusion of the conference, the participants agreed that something special had taken place during the preceding two days. It was important to them that the information and momentum not be lost. This first step in studying the intersectionality of gender and race was only the beginning of a major breakthrough in understanding the issues facing women of color.
One of the primary concerns of the attendees was that the information obtained during the sessions be distributed to all of them so that they could begin to explore how best to implement the action plans. In addition to distributing the action plans to the participants, the Women of Color Subcommittee has recommended to the Access and Fairness Advisory Committee that this report be placed on its website as a means of public outreach.
In response to many of the participants who expressed an interest in communicating on an ongoing basis regarding issues discussed at the conference and other related topics, the subcommittee created a forum entitled Women of Color in the Courts on the Judicial Council's Serranus website. The forum allows participants to post comments, questions, and messages to which other participants can respond. The Serranus website typically serves California judges and judicial branch employees, but participants who are not judicial branch employees were provided limited access to the website to participate in the forum.
One of the recommendations made by the advisory committee's predecessor, the Advisory Committee on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts, was that a national conference on women of color in the justice system be convened. Based on the success of the statewide conference and positive feedback received from the participants, the Women of Color Subcommittee is implementing this recommendation by planning for a national conference to take place within the next two years.
La Placita Manifesto
The La Placita Manifesto was approved by unanimous action of the First National Conference on Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts in session at Albuquerque, New Mexico, in March 1995 as the workplan for exploring issues affecting women of color.
The History of the La Placita Manifesto
As told at the April 17, 1998, Roundtable on Women of Color and the Justice System
Changing the Paradigm for Women of Color
A presentation given at the August 21, 1998, Roundtable on Women of Color and the Justice System II by Ms. Benita R. Horn of Achievement Architects.