marva-wiley_web.jpgFederal Judge Alan Gold recently announced his imminent transition to senior status, renewing a fervent dialogue that is just over a year old—the failure of Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and then-Sen. Mel Martinez to appoint even one black woman lawyer to serve on Florida’s Federal Judicial Nominating Commission.

The composition of Florida’s Federal JNC is irrefutable evidence that parity in the profession is still elusive for black women lawyers, notwithstanding the breadth of our academic and professional accomplishments or the heights of our ambition.

On Feb. 27, 2009, Florida’s senators appointed 55 individuals to the statewide Federal Judicial Nominating Commission, which is divided into Southern, Middle, and Northern geographical districts.  Among the Southern District’s Federal JNC, the senators tapped three women, one of whom is a lawyer, to engage in zealous debate with 17 male lawyers on the lifetime appointments of federal judges and the Southern District’s lead federal prosecutor.  Despite the far-reaching implications of each of these posts, Nelson and Martinez failed to appoint a single black woman, not to mention a black woman lawyer, to serve on the Southern District’s Federal JNC.  As the senior senator from the party that controls the White House, Nelson appoints the vast majority of the JNC.

After several letters, telephone calls and one visit to Nelson’s office by several black women lawyers to discuss the JNC’s composition, neither Nelson nor anyone on his staff has given any explanation of the appointment criteria or the process by which these appointments were made.  

When asked about this, Nelson’s then-legislative counsel could only deny that political considerations were at play, although no one could provide any specifics as to what the other criteria may have been. Most telling is that, when asked about the lack of black women lawyer appointees to the statewide commission, Nelson’s staff would invariably point to the Statewide JNC’s lone black female member, Trudie Kibble Reed, the president of Bethune-Cookman University (a highly-qualified professional although not a lawyer) who serves on the Middle District JNC.   The JNC will soon begin the process of selecting Gold’s replacement on the bench. But black women lawyers will have no say in that process.

While some male lawyers still relegate all women lawyers to subordinate status, black women lawyers often face an even greater challenge.  My contemporaries and I, who grapple with the notion of professional advancement and recognition, often refer knowingly to the “Ain’t I  A Woman?” experience.

During the mid-nineteenth century, Sojourner Truth begged the question, “Ain’t I A Woman?” when speaking at the Women’s Rights Convention in 1852.  At that time, the United States Constitution denied both women and black people the right to vote — though the rationale was rather different for each.  While notions of chivalry were used as a sword to deny women the right to vote, black women never benefited from the privileges that chivalry afforded.

Black men and women were not considered people entitled to any rights.  Hence, the chivalry argument was lost on black women like Sojourner Truth. 

Ultimately, the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution granted black men the right to vote, and the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. Yet  almost 150 years later, Sojourner Truth’s inquiry continues to resonate with many black women, particularly lawyers, in the effort to advance within the profession, gain respect among their peers, and achieve success. 

Her words foretold the sentiments of today’s black women lawyers, who for the most confounding and arbitrary reasons are repeatedly told we are not good enough – despite tremendous evidence to the contrary.

Unfortunately, the senators’ snub of Florida’s black women lawyers mirrors our local experiences, and it, unfortunately, appears to be the norm.  Somehow, black women lawyers are still presumed to be the receptionist, the office manager, or the probation officer—anything but a lawyer—regardless of the context of the situation:

•  When a black female government lawyer is still remembered as the long-time receptionist (a role she never held) by a lawyer who frequently visits that government office; and

•  When a lawyer visiting a black female partner’s firm for a mediation asks if she is the office manager even though she is working in her office at 8:30 p.m. with litigation files stacked on her desk and after they engaged in a substantive discussion about the mediated settlement agreement .

• When a judge concludes a senior attorney can only be a probation officer even after she states her appearance for the accused…then the decision by Martinez and Nelson is substantially more than an isolated incident. Instead, the decision is evidence of a disregard of black women lawyers held by many people in powerful positions.

Presumably, this same 2009 JNC will be the body that nominates candidates to fill the imminent vacancy on the federal bench.  

If, in fact, the United States of America is what it purports to be, and has overcome the prejudices that plagued Sojourner Truth in the 19th century, then it is about time that black women lawyers are allowed to take their rightful places at the table to debate and deliberate these most important issues.     

Black women lawyers attend the same schools, demonstrate the same excellent analytical skills, and devote the same dedication to service.  This community, and our political leaders, must expand their perceptions of talent to actually recognize these attributes in whatever package they present themselves.  Our senators can and should do their part by appointing a fair number of the more than capable black women lawyers to Florida’s Federal JNC. 

Senator Nelson, I ask on behalf of black women lawyers in Florida, “Ain’t I A Woman?”

Marva Wiley is a principal in the law firm of Marva L. Wiley P.A. in Miami Shores, which specializes in probate, real estate, evictions, business associations and consumer law.