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Amid protests, Barbera calls for ‘equal justice’ in Maryland

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera. (File photo)

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera. (File photo)

Maryland’s top judge called on the state’s judiciary and its 40,000 attorneys Tuesday night to ensure that racial minorities and the indigent are not shortchanged in the civil and criminal justice system.

“All of us – members of the judicial branch and the legal community – must, as Justice Thurgood Marshall has demanded, ensure that the doors of justice open wide for all people – and that once inside, procedural fairness and due process are a given,” Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote in a three-page missive she titled “Statement on Equal Justice Under Law.

“Access to legal services and representation in matters that affect the lives of all the people in our state, whether they have means or not, is essential,” Barbera added. “No one should suffer the degradations that too often accompany poverty – and we, the stewards of the justice system, cannot allow the lack of representation in civil matters to add to the burdens of the poor. Until governments can afford to guarantee representation to all in civil matters, the provision of legal representation pro bono publico – for the public good – and the legal services and information we provide can fill some, but not nearly enough, of the need.”

Barbera delivered her message two weeks into nationwide protests demanding equality for African Americans in the criminal justice system and in the way they are treated by law enforcement. The civil actions were ignited by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, while being seized by Minneapolis police.

The protests “have coalesced into a truth that cannot be ignored: People of color are being denied their rightful equality,” Barbera wrote.

“We may be disheartened, not only that our collective efforts have been insufficient and inadequate, but that so little progress appears to have been made,” she added. “We cannot falter, as we must fulfill our mandate to ensure equal justice to all under law. We must, individually and collectively, contribute in any way we can to overcome the bias that divides and imperils our civil society and the experiment that is our democracy.”

The chief judge called on the judiciary to “re-examine how we administer justice” and to work with the executive and legislative branches to “ensure that the protections and rights under law are afforded equal to all of us.”

“We must assure that our courts do not suffer bias, conscious or unconscious,” Barbera wrote. “We must examine, together, the reasons for disproportionate impact upon people of color, and address those reasons.”

Barbera said Maryland has started addressing the “systemic inequities” that afflict minorities and the poor by providing pretrial services – though they are not provided statewide – and mediation in landlord-tenant cases. The state, however, has not yet addressed “the manner in which hundreds of thousands of landlord-tenant matters are filed and administered each year,” she added.

Barbera said the state must do a better job addressing “the problems of our young, our children, who have grown up in violence and poverty, far too many of whom are of color.”

“We must recognize that their suffering is our suffering and their desperation, ours,” Barbera wrote. “As long as they are not afforded the stability and opportunity that all children deserve and require, we risk our collective stability as a state and as a nation.”

Barbera has often invoked Marshall, the late Baltimore-bred civil rights attorney and first African-American Supreme Court justice, as epitomizing equal justice when she and her fellow Court of Appeals judges welcome new attorneys to the Maryland bar.

“We have been fortunate in Maryland to have had a long-standing commitment to a judiciary that looks like the people it serves – and an equal commitment to access to justice,” Barbera wrote. “We must, however, recognize the economic and racial disparities that persist in our justice system. We cannot eliminate them until we make certain that all voices are heard and respected and that the perspectives and experience of all realign our practices to make good the promise of equal justice under law.”

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