Friday, June 12, 2020
Addressing Bias in Our Briefs and in the Legal Writing Classroom: If You Want Peace, Work for Justice
Like so many of us, I have spent the last few months worrying. I have been very worried about my law students’ physical and mental well-being. As a parent, I’m losing sleep over concerns for my high-school and college-aged children. But for the last two weeks especially, I have been incredibly anxious about the lack of justice in our country.
As a teen, I loved the statement, “if you want peace, work for justice.” I did not know then the phrase has roots in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but I knew it made sense. See, e.g., Ronald C. Smith, If You Want Peace, Work for Justice, 16 Crim. Just. 1, 2 (ABA Fall, 2001) (using the phrase to call for justice after 9/11 and discussing the role of the criminal justice bar in ensuring freedoms and liberties to bring peace); Samuel J. Levine, The Broad Life of the Jewish Lawyer: Integrating Spirituality, Scholarship and Profession, 27 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 1199, 1206-09 (1996). To me, one small way we can all start to make changes for more justice is by being more intentional in discussing bias in our writing, practice, and teaching.
As appellate lawyers, we often have a good overview of problems in the trial court, and sometimes we can see racism and bias as well. While we cannot present something beyond the record in a brief, we can do better at discussing what the record supports, and in having painful conversations with our trial counsel and clients. Our courts have been increasingly willing to discuss bias, and one recently stressed the need to take “teachable moments” to end bias. See Briganti v. Chow, 42 Cal. App. 4th 504, 510-13 (2019); Debra Cassens Weiss, “Appeals court sees lawyer's reference to 'attractive' judge in brief as a 'teachable moment' on sexism,” http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/appeals-court-sees-lawyers-reference-to-attractive-judge-in-brief-as-a-teachable-moment-on-sexism (Nov. 27, 2019). We too should advocate for professionalism, and against bias, in our practice. Of course, this is easier said than done, and our obligation is to our client, but if we start more conversations about what happened at trial and seize more opportunities to start a dialogue on professionalism, we will be working for justice.
Moreover, as legal writing teachers, we have great opportunities to include discussions of racism in our work. In doing so, we need not stray from our “assigned” role as writing teachers, since we also have an obligation to teach ethical practice as part of legal writing and analysis. In fact, we already stress important topics of professionalism in myriad ways. For example, many of us use cases on disbarment when we teach case briefing, and discuss the results of missed deadlines or failure to follow court rules as part of our teaching for memos and briefs. Additionally, I used problems on curing attorney errors for my trial brief problems for years. Now, we can include cases leading to discussions of bias as well. Using problems based in some legal areas, like Fourth Amendment pretextual stops and Title VII discrimination, will easily lead to discussions of racism and how writers and lawyers can address injustice. Using problems based in other substantive areas, like false imprisonment or real property, can create wonderful openings for discussing implicit bias and raising awareness, all while teaching crucial legal analysis and writing skills. I am not suggesting professors should or should not share their own views in these discussions, I am just noting a discussion of bias in the law and legal profession is a logical and important part of the ethical issues we already teach.
As Ronald Smith said of working for justice to bring peace: “think of another saying, ‘It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.’ [When] we seek justice each of us lights candles, [and] light[s] the way for others to see how they . . . can light candles and work for justice, too.” Smith, If You Want Peace, Work for Justice, 16 Crim. Just. at 3.
I wish you all good health and less worry, with hopes for a more just future.