A decade ago, a committee appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a whopping 550-page report that contained nearly 200 recommendations on how to reduce gender, racial and ethnic bias in the state justice system.
Since then, a tiny commission based in Pittsburgh has made progress implementing some of those suggestions, including establishing official policies for more equitable treatment of women and minorities who work in the court system.
The Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness today will mark the 10th anniversary of the state high court's report at an invitation-only event titled "A Decade of Fairness" at Duquesne University School of Law. Scheduled to speak are Judge Marjorie Rendell of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and Chief Justice Ronald Castille of the state Supreme Court.
"I remember vividly when the commission started in the basement of the law school on a shoestring budget," said Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne's law school. "They had virtually no funding but the school gave them office space and use of some secretaries ... and they were relentless in moving this thing forward."
The commission's work, he said, "ensures people in government and the court systems are sensitive to issues of racial, gender and ethnic fairness."
Lisette "Mimi" McCormick, executive director of the commission now based in the U.S. Steel Tower, said prior to the state Supreme Court's request for recommendations, women and minorities had complained about unfair treatment "but the courts were too busy and it was hard for them to step back and see" the problems.
The commission has found the suggestions to be a good starting point. "We are able to think creatively about how to implement the recommendations from the original report," she said.
In addition to establishing a court-approved policy that prohibits discrimination based on age, gender, religion, disability, race or ethnicity in court facilities, other recommendations the commission has worked to achieve, Ms. McCormick said, include providing a manual for judges and court administrative managers to establish a diversified workforce.
"It's a blueprint to diversify the workforce and then retain those diverse employees," she said. "In corporations, the tone is set by the chief executive and managers. In the courts, the tone is set by the Supreme Court and president judges who have to make their employees aware of the importance and value of diversity. Ten years ago, these things weren't happening."
The commission, with an annual budget of about $300,000, is funded by the state. It could be forced to lay off one staff attorney if the state does not increase its funding in the next fiscal budget, Ms. McCormick said.
"That would be a very, very significant loss. No one else does what we do."
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.