Florida’s highest court has issued an order that blocks lawyers from their attempts to increase diversity in the legal profession, a move that no other state has taken.
The Supreme Court ruled that requiring instructors in legal seminars to include people of color was equivalent to a quota, which the court called discriminatory. Critics responded that the order takes aim at diversity itself.
The court’s decision sends a discouraging message to both lawyers and the community at large about the value the justice system places on diversity, legal experts said.
“The trend in criminal justice and in the legal profession as a whole is to make sure there is diversity,” said Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor, who took office in January after being the first Black man elected to the job.
The Florida Bar’s Business Law Section, which oversees continuing education programs for lawyers, had passed a requirement for those programs to include members of diverse groups in panels of more than three speakers.
In practice, it meant lawyers attending a seminar with three or more presenters would be assured that at least one would be a person of color, a woman or LGBTQ. That requirement, according to the court, amounted to a quota, and quotas are “out of bounds.”
“Quotas based on characteristics like the ones in this policy are antithetical to basic American principles of nondiscrimination,” the court’s 6-1 majority wrote.
The court not only struck down the alleged quota as a requirement — it also prohibited the Bar from accepting credits for any classes taught by an organization with a “quota” policy.
“It is essential that The Florida Bar withhold its approval from continuing legal education programs that are tainted by such discrimination,” the justices wrote in the April 15 decision.
Florida will be the only state barring inclusion as a requirement for education credits. That, Pryor said, puts the state on the wrong side of history.
“You can’t tell me there isn’t value to having a diverse panel, to exposing people to different ideas and viewpoints,” Pryor said. “There is value in diversity. You can’t convince me otherwise.”
Writing separately in agreement with the court’s majority, Judge C. Alan Lawson said the diversity requirements were well-intentioned but improper.
“Both the Bar and the State Court System have for many years worked diligently to assure a system of justice that is fair for all and that treats all individuals as equal under the law,” Lawson wrote. “This Court is steadfast in its firm commitment to these ideals.”
Now the American Bar Association and other advocates for diversity have less than three weeks to formally ask the high court to reverse a decision no one asked it to make.
The decision raised eyebrows precisely because it was “sua sponte,” meaning the judges were acting spontaneously, not responding to a case or a formal complaint.
The rejected Florida Bar policy echoed the one adopted by the American Bar Association in 2016. The ABA is one of the largest providers of continuing education programming, but for the past couple of months, Florida lawyers have been getting no credit for attending their courses.
Florida lawyers are required to receive 33 hours of education each year to stay on top of changes in the law and related issues, such as ethics.
“Our [Continuing Legal Education] programming is recognized for its excellence. We use speakers and panelists who are experts in their disciplines,” said American Bar Association President Patricia Lee Refo. “Our CLE programs also have for years reflected the ABA’s commitment to eliminate bias and enhance diversity in the legal profession. We will urge the Florida Supreme Court to modify its new CLE rule.”
Ashley Gantt, president of the TJ Reddick Bar Association, a voluntary group of Black lawyers practicing in South Florida, said the decision is a reminder to her and her colleagues to remain vigilant about the challenges for people of color in the legal profession.
“The change in the rule doesn’t reflect the changes happening in our society and in our profession,” Gantt said. “Now more than ever it is incumbent on attorneys to continue to promote diversity and to call out efforts to stamp it out.”
The court gave supporters and challengers until June 29 to file comments favoring or opposing the decision.