LAW DAY: MAY 1, 1999
By Philip S. Anderson, President, American Bar Association
On this Law Day, the message of public trust, confidence and understanding about the justice system is both sweet and bitter.
That message is sweet because 80 percent of the American public believes that our justice system is the best in the world, despite any shortcomings. That heartening news came out of a public opinion survey that the American Bar Association commissioned to help inform participants in a symposium, "Public Understanding and Perceptions of the American Justice System," held recently in Washington, D.C.
Respondents told us that the bulwark of their trust in our legal system is the jury, that grand invention that preserves justice as both a means to participate in self-government and a shield against tyranny. Of those surveyed, 78 percent said the jury system is the most fair way to determine guilt or innocence, and 69 percent said juries are the most important part of our system.
But the bitter part of the message is in our news virtually every day. There is a persistent and pervasive view that our legal system does not treat each of us with the same degree of fairness and dignity. Fifty percent of respondents to the survey think police treat minorities differently from white people and 47 percent said the same thing about our courts.
While that survey measured the views of the general public, the ABA has found similar causes for concern about lawyers, the insiders of the legal system. A poll conducted for the ABA Journal and the National Bar Association Magazine documented a startling difference in the ways that African American and white lawyers perceive racial bias in our courts. Only 16 percent of white lawyers say they have witnessed racial bias in the justice system within the preceding three years, but two-thirds of African American lawyers say they have witnessed such conduct. In general, white lawyers perceive our court system to be fair and equitable to people of all races. Black lawyers do not see it that way at all.
The question is obvious. If people believe the system of justice is tainted with bias, how long can we expect them to believe the courts will remedy bias elsewhere in society? As the proportion of our population that is minority increases, will the perception of bias become even stronger?
We must all find ways to make sure that does not happen. The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a nationwide study of racial profiling. Individual cities are reexamining their police departments, looking for patterns of "driving-while-black" stops in enforcing traffic laws. With all of us working together, and working over the long haul, we can make a difference in the perceptions and reality about bias in our legal system, and make the confidence in our system even higher than it is today.
EDITORS: For confirmation, please contact Christine Lanier, American Bar Association, Communications Services, at 202/662-1792. The text can be downloaded from the Web at http://www.abanet.org/media/opeds.html.