“Equal Justice Under the Law” is emblazoned over the Supreme Court of the United States. It is an ideal that our justice system endeavors to achieve. As former justices of the Supreme Court of Florida, we have adhered to the critical concept that the judiciary is an independent, co-equal branch of government.
But, sadly within days of the governor’s crackdown, the Florida Supreme Court, without notice, and over the single dissent of Justice Jorge Labarga, ordered the end of a decadeslong commitment to diversity education in Florida courts. “Diversity, equity and inclusion” became banned terms with a single stroke of the judicial pen and without input from the bench and bar. Apparently, the action was taken in lockstep with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda to dismantle college diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
We now live in a state where the governor condemns anything he considers to be “woke.” He uses the term as shorthand to condemn any and all programs and concepts that he does not agree with. Apparently, “diversity, equity and inclusion” were too “woke” for him. But in fact, “woke” means being aware of and alert to racial prejudice and discrimination; this is a concept that we embrace.
And the precipitous actions of our own Florida Supreme Court jettisoned an endeavor that spanned more than three decades to ensure that judges and court staff received meaningful education in diversity and fairness. In fact, diversity, equity, fairness and inclusion education for judges and court staff has been part of the Florida Supreme Court’s efforts since the 1980s and was put in place to address the very real fact that justice can be undermined if judges and other court personnel are not made aware of their own implicit biases.
Like it or not, judges are human beings with explicit and implicit biases. It is critical that judicial education assists in raising awareness of these biases among judges and court personnel. Former justices, from Justice Ray Ehrlich and Justice Parker Lee McDonald to Justice Major Harding, all promoted the importance of diversity education during their tenure as chief justice. In fact, until last month, the commitment to diversity training and fairness remained unbroken by the Florida Supreme Court.
While we were both chief justices of the Florida Supreme Court, we continued the important tradition of re-appointing a Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity to “advance the State Courts System’s efforts to eliminate from court operations bias that is based on race, gender, ethnicity, age, disability, financial status, or any characteristic that is without legal relevance.” Further, prior to the court’s opinion eliminating diversity from the education curriculum, in large part because of mandatory judicial education on diversity, Florida stood as a role model for the country. But no more!
The question is whether Florida’s legal community, including lawyers and independent bar and civic groups, will accept this action without complaint or without their voices being heard. “Equal justice under the law,” indeed!
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Barbara J. Pariente was the 77th justice, and the second female justice, to serve on the Florida Supreme Court. She was appointed to the court in 1997 and served until her mandatory retirement in 2019. She served as chief justice from 2004-2006.
Peggy A. Quince was the 79th justice, and the first African American female justice, to serve on the Florida Supreme Court. She was appointed to the court in 1998 and served until her mandatory retirement in 2019. She served as chief justice from 2008-2010.