Civil rights here and now!

Issue November/December 2016 By Jeffrey N. Catalano

There is a concept that all trial lawyers who represent victims in personal injury and medical malpractice cases like me deal with: jury disassociation. Essentially it's when jurors hear about something terrible that happened to our client and convince themselves it would not have happened to them because they do things differently. Many jurors think they would avoid tragedy because they are more enlightened, and make better choices than our client did. They would have avoided the car accident, challenged a doctor's opinion or taken more precautions on the worksite. It's a psychological protective mechanism we use to ensure that we don't feel endangered by what happened to other people.

Similarly, we hear constantly about terrible race-related events in Ferguson, Charlotte, Dallas, Baltimore, Chicago, Baton Rouge, New York and too many other places. But many think to themselves, "That would never happen here in Massachusetts." We are more enlightened. We are not as racially insensitive, biased or racist. It's a protective mechanism. Deep down, most of us know that's not so. As much as it's hard to admit, incidents of bias and discrimination happen even in our own justice system. They not only happen to members of the public, but to fellow attorneys based on race, gender and sexual orientation.

I personally have learned of recent discriminatory events that happened to my colleagues here in Massachusetts that shocked my conscience. I'd like to say that these kinds of incidents happen very rarely, but I don't think I can say that with any authority.

The hard truth is that we have our problems here and we need to confront them now. Some are extreme, and some are implicit.

So, in this time when civil rights abuses are being brought to the forefront and front pages seemingly every day, the MBA knows it must do its part. We are taking a prominent role to ensure that the civil rights of our fellow attorneys and the citizens of our state are protected. We want to help impressive leaders facilitate measures that benefit everyone in our state and make Massachusetts a legal leader in this arena.

So, here is what we are doing.

We have two MBA "dream team" section councils that are prepared to step into the fray and be a strong voice for those who need one.

First, I am pleased and proud to announce that we have created a revitalized Civil Rights Section Council under the leadership of Richard Cole, a nationally known civil rights attorney and former civil rights division chief in the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General. And, for the first time ever, we have delegates on the council from every minority bar association in the state: MBLA, MAHA, SABA, AALA, LGBTQ and WBA, as well as GBLS, CPCS, the ACLU, the AG's Civil Rights Division, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. It's an unprecedented opportunity for the MBA to gather thought leaders from every segment of civil rights arena in one room on a regular basis to focus on and work toward solutions. This supercharged council will have a summit meeting every month of civil rights leaders from every sector. Some of the important issues they will be dealing with include implicit bias, protections to prevent voter intimidation, fair housing and broad issues around criminal justice reform.

Second, we have a powerful Criminal Justice Section Council, under the leadership of Georgia Critsley and Pauline Quirion - two attorneys with a passion for criminal justice running through their veins. Both Georgia and Pauline have received awards for their dedication to justice and public service. (Oh, and immediate past president and renowned criminal defense attorney Bob Harnais is on that council too.) They are prepared to take on CORI training, law enforcement procedures, and the special needs of poverty stricken people who need indigent defense services.

Both of these councils will be collaborating to do what they can to improve our system of justice for the attorneys and citizens of Massachusetts so the system works as it should.

We also worked with the MBLA on sponsoring and promoting a courtroom drama for high school students called "Defamation." This play generates conversations about the difficult issues of race, class and religion, gender, diversity, social justice and the law. The twist is that students act as the jury.

In addition, MBA Vice President John Morrissey is organizing a seminar on implicit bias to include prominent judges, and we will be reaching out to other bar associations for their support.

No one will ever say that the MBA sat idly by during these trying and difficult times. In this situation, as in many others, we are there when we need to be. And we want in on any civil rights issues being addressed across the state. Together we are thousands strong and we will make a difference. As I said during a recent speech, when we dream alone it is only a dream. When we dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality. So, watch what we do. If you want to do more than watch, then give me a call and join us in leadership.

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