Spurred by Local and National Political Climates, Pa. Bias Commission Steps Into the Light

Lisette "Mimi" McCormick

The Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness has been active for 14 years, studying issues that are simultaneously wide-ranging and closely intertwined, including capital punishment, jury diversity, immigration, domestic violence, implicit bias and indigent defense funding.

For much of that time, the commission's work has remained relatively under the radar.

Part of the reason for that, according to executive director Lisette "Mimi" McCormick, is budgetary. Between 2008 and 2011, the commission, which was formed in 2005 in response to a report and recommendations by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System, released annual reports on its progress and held public programs around the state to present the findings.

But, McCormick said, those reports and programs eventually became too expensive to sustain.

"Our budget has really reduced our ability to conduct these kinds of public programs outside of the area where we’re located in Allegheny County," she said.

Then came a few major developments: Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 and, shortly after he took office in 2017, Jeff Sessions was named attorney general. Around the same time, but on the flipside politically, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro took office. And last November, Gov. Tom Wolf was re-elected to a second term.

"I think the political environment really prompted at least me to get out there and talk about the issues and try to encourage people to speak up and to take action," McCormick said.

Last week, the commission held a public program in Philadelphia titled, "Advancing the Fair Delivery of Justice in Pennsylvania," and released a report by the same name, which details much of the work the commission has done over the past decade-plus. The commission also released guidelines for Pennsylvania courts titled, "Demonstrating Respect, Neutrality, and Fairness."

McCormick said the program, made possible in part by the ability to utilize donated space in the Philadelphia Family Court Building, was a long overdue opportunity to educate the public on its various initiatives.

"We spend a lot of our time doing a lot of the actual work and these are such significant issues, it’s taken all of our efforts to complete these initiatives," she said. "We finally picked our heads up and decided it was time to tell people about what we're doing."

Among those initiatives has been an effort to address the treatment of immigrants in state court—an issue McCormick said has flared up locally as a result of Trump administration policies.

McCormick said the commission collected reports from lawyers across the state, and particularly in eastern Pennsylvania, over the past few years who said their clients were inappropriately asked by judges about their immigration status and then barred from participating in diversionary programs if they were determined to be undocumented.

McCormick said she has the sense that, as a result of the current presidential administration, some state judges feel they have a responsibility to aid the federal government's immigration efforts, in some instances even going so far as to assist the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency in detaining and deporting defendants.

"Some really view themselves as an arm of law enforcement and that's false," she said.

Armed with those reports of mistreatment of immigrant defendants, the commission submitted a letter to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court detailing the incidents, which prompted the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to issue an advisory that inquiries by state judges into defendants' immigration status could constitute a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

The commission continues to partner with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Temple University's Beasley School of Law to track this issue and to draft recommendations aimed at addressing the problem.

While some of the commission's advocacy is a reaction against government policies, McCormick also acknowledged that there are times when "the stars align" and state and local politicians throw their support behind a few key issues that fall within the ambit of the commission's work. When that happens, McCormick said, the commission narrows its focus a bit to capitalize on those opportunities.

"We have a governor who supports a moratorium on the death penalty so it's time to really push that," she said.

The commission contracted with Pennsylvania State University to study the effects of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic statuses on the administration of the death penalty. The university's report on its findings was released in October 2017. The commission also worked with the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission on its report titled, "Capital Punishment in Pennsylvania: The Report of the Task Force and Advisory Committee," released last June.

Since then, McCormick said, the commission has been working with the legislature to implement recommended changes to the law based on those reports' findings.

Relatedly, she added, both Wolf and Shapiro have called for state funding of indigent defense, another area of focus for the commission.

As for the future, McCormick said the commission will continue its work in all of the aforementioned areas and others, including ongoing efforts to pass an amendment to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act that would extend the law's protections to the LGBT community.

Similar to its collaboration with CLS and Temple Law on the immigration issue, the commission has partnered with Lambda Legal on issues related to the LGBT community. It is also working with the Allegheny County Bar Association on a pilot program to incorporate implicit bias training into all continuing legal and judicial education courses.

McCormick said sharing resources with like-minded organizations is essential for tackling such a broad range of complicated issues.

"We’ve got to all work together," she said.