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NAACP’s Ifill to Judges: Bias Training Is a Must

By Tracy Schorn

April 11, 2017

NAACP's Sherrilyn Ifill gives speech at Judicial and Bar Conference

“We all have [bias]. It’s not something to be ashamed of,” thus began nationally recognized voting rights and judicial selection expert Sherrilyn Ifill in her keynote speech before a packed room of hundreds of judges and attorneys at the District of Columbia Judicial and Bar Conference on April 7.

The conference, held in alternating years by the D.C. Courts and the D.C. Bar, tackled the theme “Justice for All? Bias and Discrimination in the 21st Century” in several seminars lined up during the day.

Judging others is inherently human, said Ifill, who is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. However, she cautioned that at this particular time in our country’s history, trying one’s “best to be a good person . . . is not enough.”

Citing the multitude of police killings of unarmed African Americans in the last several years, Ifill said she fears minorities are losing their faith in the rule of law, in the notion that justice is fair. “Racial discrimination remains in our justice system,” she said. Ifill challenged everyone in the room to “confront that reality and take time to learn about bias.”

To improve the judiciary and fight back against implicit bias in the system, she suggested that judges receive training on how to become impartial. “People think when you take the bench you just become impartial. It takes work to become impartial . . . to not rush to judgment about people. We shouldn’t assume that impartiality comes down on you like a mantle,” said Ifill.

“[Bias training is] about making you a better judge. It’s not something nice you’re doing for a racial minority. It should be required. We should ask judges: When have you made a decision contrary to your personal views?”

Ifill also made an impassioned case about the power of narrative, of allowing clients to fully tell their stories. “Trials are rare. There are so many stories you do not hear. People can tolerate losing if they could just tell their story.”

With overloaded dockets and the rush to move as many cases as possible, Ifill cautioned that clients cannot properly tell their stories. “Bias happens in quick judgment. We need to slow down the process in the courtroom. Do we listen before we think we’ve heard it all before?”

“Be fully conscious of your own biases. This will strengthen the rule of law,” said Ifill. She later emphasized to the judges in attendance, “You hold the rule of law. Your work will uphold this democracy. If our democracy is to [survive], it’s because our judicial branch held us up.”