Beyond the Bench: Law, Justice, and
By Justice Eva Guzman, Tina Amberboy, Kristi Taylor, and Jamie Bernstein
From left: Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht
welcomed participants, telling them that the Beyond the Bench: Law,
Justice, and Communities Summit was “intended to bring together
many different perspectives to listen to and learn from each other."
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo gave the keynote address.
Answering a call to action from Texas’ highest courts, more than 200 law enforcement officials, public servants, and community leaders came together on December 14 at Paul Quinn College in Dallas for a day of discourse with the judiciary. The Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hosted the Beyond the Bench: Law, Justice, and Communities Summit to address escalating tensions and tragedies involving law enforcement and private citizens, offering an opportunity for community collaboration with the judiciary to enhance the public’s trust and confidence in our justice system.
The event was conceived as a critical first step in addressing a public perception that some people do not receive fair treatment in our courts. In addition to recent high-profile tragedies revealing deep racial divides on issues of law and justice, a recent National Center for State Courts survey found that only 32 percent of black Americans believe state courts provide equal justice for all. Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s reminder that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht has designated the conversation about justice, race, and bias in Texas to be a judicial priority. “As judges, we’re concerned that communities without trust in police will not trust their courts—and not just the criminal courts,” Hecht said. “We can either accept distrust as inevitable or we can work to change it. We choose to work to change it.” The summit, he said, was “intended to bring together many different perspectives to listen to and learn from each other.”
Supreme Court of Texas Justice Eva Guzman, who led the planning of the summit, brought keen insight and strong leadership to the event’s objectives. Guzman, who drew from her experiences as the child of impoverished immigrants, the wife of a police officer, and a judge for more than 16 years, acknowledged that “disparate views about the rising tensions between law enforcement and communities of color are shaped by the unique experiences of a diverse citizenry.”
Telling the Truth
Paul Quinn College President Michael J. Sorrell welcomed participants to his campus and challenged them to have uncomfortable conversations, be courageous, and tell the truth. Following Sorrell, recently-appointed Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo delivered the keynote address. As the head of the police department of the fourth largest city in the country, he expressed his belief that law enforcement is the best it has ever been, yet remains imperfect. Those in law enforcement, like everyone else, he said, should confront bias as part of our humanity. Acevedo challenged the audience to lead and serve in a manner that is not about self-preservation, but about what is right.
From left: Tony Evans, senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in
Dallas, provided the closing remarks. Supreme Court of Texas Justice Eva
Guzman, who led the planning of the summit, provided opening remarks.
Viewpoints: Life-Altering Moments
Some of the day’s most moving moments came from Texans whose lives were altered by first-hand experiences with injustice or bias. Hon. Eric T. Washington, chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, moderated a panel of speakers who told their stories of interactions between community members and law enforcement.
Emily Thompson, the widow of fallen Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police Officer Brent Thompson who was one of five officers killed in July 2016 in a sniper ambush following a peaceful protest in downtown Dallas about police relations, shared her story of heartbreak. “I now have the ugly title of widow and a widow that wasn’t even married long enough to make it to her honeymoon,” Thompson said. “I’m a single mother, sole breadwinner, and worst of all, I’m always sad about what might have been. It was all ripped from me, and I will never be able to understand why.”
Richard Miles, wrongfully convicted of murder and attempted murder in 1995, spoke of lost time with his family and shattered dreams. He served 15 years of a combined 60-year sentence before being fully exonerated in 2012.
Paul Quinn College senior Arielle Clarkson talked about the loss of her brother, who died during an encounter with police. Clarkson, a pre-law major and the student body president, spoke of the many years it took for her to understand the full effect his death had on her life.
Through these brave personal accounts, participants developed a nuanced understanding of the challenges facing both law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect. “While our life experiences necessarily inform perceptions of our justice system, they do not limit our potential to transform it,” Guzman said. “To move forward in these turbulent times, we must start by rejecting the idea that supporting law enforcement and supporting communities of color are mutually exclusive endeavors. We must bring fresh eyes and ears to old problems, and we must approach the task with humility, openness, and a shared resolve to make listening everyone’s chief objective.”
When Intuition Fails: Mental Shortcuts and Unconscious Bias
Cornell Law School Professor Jeffrey Rachlinski shared his research on cognitive and social psychology, specifically, that intuitive reactions can be accurate but are often a source of erroneous and invidious judgments. Rachlinski walked participants through several examples of how intuition can fail us with findings from studies testing cognitive reflection, anchor effects, in-group bias, and implicit associations. Some of his conclusions were:
• People harbor a variety of invidious associations.
• These associations sometimes influence judgment.
• 80 percent of white adults more readily associate white with good and black with bad.
• Knowing when to suppress intuition is essential to sound judgment.
Rachlinski’s research laid a foundation for the brain science behind decision-making and the mental shortcuts that can lead to bias.
The summit also featured an interactive, multidisciplinary panel moderated by F. Scott McCown, a former judge and current director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. The panel was presented with a fictional scenario involving a child’s journey through the justice system following an arrest at school. As representatives from many interrelated systems—education, law enforcement, mental health, faith, and justice—the panelists shared their viewpoints as they examined various decision-making points in time that could dramatically affect the trajectory of that child’s life.
Small groups of participants discussed and proposed “big ideas” in response to a question designed to spur action: What is a practical first step you can take now to bring about change in your community, profession, organization, or agency? Transparency, truth, and justice for all were common themes reflected in the ideas the participants shared at the event. Judges in attendance pledged to be even more deliberate in their decision-making, to be mindful of looking people before them in the eye, and to ensure all are treated with respect. Several participants were appearing inspired to create gatherings of local stakeholders to step outside their comfort zones by connecting regularly to listen and learn from one another about problems, challenges, and solutions.
Overall, participants submitted ideas for promoting accountability, awareness, community efforts, court improvement, data collection and analysis, education, legislation, organizational and personal goals, and better training. Some specific examples include:
• Take this dialogue to new venues—churches, schools, courthouses, and the Legislature.
• Mandate training and education regarding cognitive and implicit bias for all stakeholders in the criminal justice system.
• Ask an independent party or organization outside of the justice system to track convictions and punishment based on key demographics including race. Partner with a college or university if possible.
• Invite communities to join in identifying problems that impact them and propose solutions. The people closest to a problem may have the best answer, yet often are absent from the dialogue.
• Educate and train police officers on the importance of positive contacts in the community.
• Provide fully funded representation for children accused of crimes through an effective public defender program.
The summit concluded with the inspirational words of Senior Pastor Tony Evans, of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. Evans encouraged participants to endeavor to strengthen the relationship between communities, law enforcement, and courts, and to seek help through faith.
Continuing the Conversation
Participants providing feedback after the event through a survey expressed interest in information and tools to help recreate the summit at a local level. Their enthusiasm for the event and for continuing bold and courageous conversations was palpable. In response, court representatives have created a toolkit to extend the summit’s reach. The toolkit provides details necessary to replicate the event or host a similar program. The Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals are optimistic the toolkit will help foster collaboration and ultimately further the work of confronting injustice, challenging unconscious bias, and ensuring fairness and trust in the justice system. TBJ
JUSTICE EVA GUZMAN has served on the Supreme Court of Texas since 2009 and became the first Hispanic woman elected to a statewide office in November 2010 when she was elected to a full term. She serves as chair of the Supreme Court of Texas Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families and is the Supreme Court’s liaison to the Texas Access to Justice Commission. Justice Guzman was recently honored with the Hispanic Bar Association of Houston’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2016 Texas Association of Civil Trial and Appellate Specialists Appellate Judge of the Year Award. She was re-elected to the Supreme Court in November 2016.
TINA AMBERBOY joined the Supreme Court of Texas as the executive director of the Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families in May 2007. She is responsible for providing leadership in the development and execution of the Children’s Commission’s strategies. Prior to working for the Supreme Court, she represented children and parents in the child welfare system. Amberboy earned a J.D. from Baylor Law School in 1996 and a Bachelor of Arts in government from the University of Texas at Austin in 1993.
KRISTI TAYLOR started with the Supreme Court in 2006 as the staff attorney for Children, Youth and Families and was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Children’s Commission in 2007. She currently serves as the assistant director, focusing on the well-being of children in foster care through work on issues such as mental health, psychotropic medication, disproportionality and disparities for children of color, state/tribal collaboration, and LGBT youth.
JAMIE BERNSTEIN joined the Supreme Court of Texas as a staff attorney for the Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families in 2014. She began her legal career in New York, where she represented children in child protective and delinquency proceedings. Bernstein’s current focus is the improvement of educational outcomes for children in the Texas foster care system.