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1997 Progress Report

The Past: The Oregon Supreme Court Task Force on Racial/Ethnic Issues in the Judicial System

On February 21, 1992, the Oregon Supreme Court established the Task Force on Racial/Ethnic Issues in the Judicial System to identify problems faced by minorities in Oregon's justice system and to propose realistic and attainable solutions to the identified problems. Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson, Jr., appointed an ethnically and professionally diverse group of 18 persons to serve on the Task Force under the direction of the Oregon Supreme Court Justice, and former Chief Justice Edwin J. Peterson.  In May 1994, the Task Force published its findings and made 72 recommendations. The recommendations touched virtually every aspect of the justice system -- law schools, the Oregon State Bar (OSB), the Oregon Judicial Department (OJD), law firms and law enforcement and other government agencies.

The findings of the Task Force on Racial/Ethnic Issues in the Judicial System demonstrated that the problems racial and ethnic minorities experience in their dealings with the justice system do not stem from overt acts of disrespect or mistreatment.  In the context of Oregon's court system, explicit manifestations of racial bias rarely occur, and when they do, are isolated events. Rather, as the Task Force discovered, something more pervasive is at work: institutionalized bias. Institutionalized bias descries a residue of beliefs that continue to linger in the subconscious of our society, perpetuate negative stereotypes and accordingly affect people's actions without their knowledge.

Given the subtle nature of institutionalized bias, the Task Force observed that the greatest challenge to resolving the problem is convincing nonminority people of good will that, in a subconscious manner, they are the key contributors to the problem. When confronted with such a suggestion, nonminorities are quick to defend themselves rather than critically analyze the system in which they operate.  It is crucial to the successful elimination of institutionalized bias for nonminorities to understand its power and become vigilant against its possible manifestations, because given their numbers and placement in positions of power, once nonminorities take responsibility for contributing to the problems flowing from institutionalized bias, the solutions will come more easily. In short, and as noted by the Task Force, "increased understanding fosters fairness."

The Present: The Oregon Supreme Court Implementation Committee

The first recommendation of the Task Force encouraged the Oregon Supreme Court to "appoint a committee to assist in the implementation of the recommendations."  In accordance with the recommendations, and as a sign of its commitment to rectifying the problems identified by the Task Force, on June 15, 1994, the Supreme Court established an eight-person Implementation Committee.  Chief Justice Carson charged the Implementation Committee with overseeing the translation of the 72 recommendations into directives, programs or legislation and preparing an Implementation Progress Report.  Under the leadership of Judge Paul J. De Muniz of the Oregon Court of Appeals, the Implementation Committee divided itself into seven subcommittees, met with all the affected entities, considered all 72 recommendations, and developed a legislative package of six bills (Senate Bills 864 through 869).

The Committee's general charge was to oversee, to the extent possible, the implementation of the 72 recommendations. Because the charge directed it to oversee implementation, not implement the charges itself, the Implementation Committee was not empowered with economic incentives or armed with sanction authority to aid the implementation process. Rather, it facilitated the implementation process by relying on the collective goodwill of the affected entities to make change happen.  Accordingly, the responsibility of translating the recommendations into directives or programs lay with the Judicial Department, other government agencies, members of the bar, law enforcement agencies, the Oregon law schools and the Oregon State Bar.  The Implementation Committee did, however, take a lead role in the development of related legislation.  The committee, therefore, fulfilled its duty by determining the implementation status of each recommendation, meeting with all the affected entities, identifying areas where the committee could aid implementation efforts and providing such support, developing and pursuing the passage of six bills, and completing a progress report.

The publication of the Implementation Progress Report of 1996 completed the work of the Implementation Committee.  The report has six chapters that address the following subjects:

  1. language issues;
  2. criminal justice issues;
  3. juvenile justice issues;
  4. cross-cultural education, recruiting and hiring concerns;
  5. the need for ongoing oversight and data collection; and
  6. ]jury pool and jury selection issues.

Each chapter begins with an overview of the problem, continues with a description of implementation efforts and contains, if necessary, additional proposals offered by the Implementation Committee.

The report also contains four appendices. 

  • Appendix A contains a summary list of all the recommendations and the related implementation efforts. 
  • Appendix B contains a list of all the forms local courts have translated. 
  • Appendix C contains a copy of the Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Oregon Courts.
  • Appendix D contains copies of the Implementation Committee's six bills and two other bills the Implementation Committee helped develop.

The Future: Ongoing Oversight and Coordination

The efforts described in the implementation report demonstrate a strong commitment to equal justice among the organizations and individuals affected by the Task Force recommendations. Oregonians have a lot to feel good about.  But the efforts contained in the report are only the first step. All who are committed to achieving the goal of equal justice must maintain their vigor. The effort must be continued.

Two themes emerged from the committee's work:

  1. the need to coordinate the efforts of the various entities involved in the implementation effort; and
  2. the need to ensure that the Implementation Committee's efforts are ongoing

Throughout the judicial system, the committee discovered a vast amount of dedication to change but little coordination of efforts.  Without coordination, efforts are often duplicated and resources not shared. Also, the committee found that despite the significant implementation progress, lasting change will take time.  Ongoing oversight and coordination by the Implementation Committee will significantly aid such continued implementation efforts.

The Implementation Committee Report of January 1996 recommended, in very strong terms, that a "standing Implementation Committee" be established by the Oregon Supreme Court. On March 24, 1997, the Oregon Supreme Court established the Oregon Judicial Department Access to Justice for All Committee (Access Committee) to continue the implementation process.  The Access Committee has 10 members and includes representatives from the business community, the judiciary, the prosecution and defense, the governor's office, and Legal Aid. The Access Committee has approved the following mission statement:

  • Pursue and coordinate implementation of the recommendations of the Oregon Supreme Court Task Force on Racial/Ethnic Issues in the Judicial System and the Oregon Supreme Court Implementation Committee;
  • Monitor and evaluate the progress and effectiveness of implemented reforms; and
  • Make recommendations for education, additional reforms, and study concerning access to justice or ethnic minorities, and as otherwise directed by the Chief Justice.

With the establishment of the Access Committee, the Oregon Supreme Court has again expressed its intent to continue its efforts to assure all of the citizens of Oregon equal access, opportunity, and ultimate fairness throughout the judicial system.

This progress report was prepared for and presented at the May 1997 meeting of the National Consortium of Task Forces on Racial & Ethnic Bias in the Courts by the Honorable Paul J. De Muniz, Oregon Court of Appeals Judge, member of the Access Committee, and former chairperson of the Oregon Supreme Court Implementation Committee.