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Chief Justice Michael Douglas – African-American heads Nevada Supreme Court

February 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Feature

Black History Month is the ideal time to recognize Chief Justice Michael Douglas, the first African-American to hold the top post on the Nevada Supreme Court. First appointed to the state high court in 2004, Nevada voters have since elected him twice, with his current term ending in 2013. A Los Angeles native, Douglas spoke to Black Image about judicial excellence, growing diversity on the bench and why African-Americans can have more faith in the legal system.

What does it mean to you to be the first African-American chief justice on the Nevada Supreme Court?

It’s a nice title, but the reality is that my appointment means more to our community and stands as a testament that black people can hold this job and do it successfully. By virtue of being on the Supreme Court, you are in a position to set policy on the interpretation and application of the law in the state. Law is something that is very important … to everyone. But it’s more important to black people and other minorities. This is a historic result of how the law has been used, in the past, to work against us. So it is important to have someone who possibly looks like you making decisions, so that you can have faith in the legal process. The law at best is perception — the perception that there is a certain amount of fairness, and if there is no one who looks like you, one might question, “Are things fair?”

What do black people need to know about the judicial system that we might not already be aware of?
When they read a headline in the newspaper or hear a sound bite on television, sometimes I think everyone questions, “Do black people really get a fair day in court?” I would have to say yes, they do. But I have to be honest and say they didn’t always. [Increased] public access to the courts means everybody knows what’s going on now. Some of the things that might have occurred with the “good old boy system,” and inherent racism, has died out. I won’t sit here and say it is totally gone, but people know their actions and decisions are held up to the light.
There are judges of all colors who are willing to make the right call. Everyone is accountable. Our busiest judges are in the municipal court, and our justice of the peace is reviewed by the district court judges. The district court judges are reviewed by the Supreme Court. Also, we have the example of Karen Bennett-Heron in our justice court, who is now the chief judge. You have Tim Williams with our district court, and you have me sitting at the state court. We have Judge Johnnie Rawlinson on the Ninth Circuit and we have our newly appointed Gloria Navarro from the Hispanic community on our local federal bench. We have examples of people of color across the board in our judicial system, and we can look at them and say, “We have some representation. They might know what is going on in my life, and we may not always agree with them, but I might have a better shot and the decision will be fair because I have someone to look out for my interests.”

What are your thoughts on the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison?
At one time it was because of pure racism and discrimination. I think when you look at our numbers today, you still might have to consider this, but you also have to look at other factors. Some of these factors are lack of education and access to jobs. Some people are trying to provide for their families and might engage in illegal activities, or some might just be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Also, I need to point out that we, black people, are not responding when we are called to serve jury duty. We can’t shy away from serving on a jury, because everyone should have a jury of their peers. When I was doing trial work, I would look around to count the number of African-Americans, Hispanics or Asians on the potential jury. There would be very few of us, and when I would get some of our people, they would ask to be excused because they had to go to work, or they just didn’t want to serve on the jury. It is important to step up to the plate and serve on the jury when called. We have a legal system that allows you to be involved. If you want to see that the process is fair, you have to be involved in the process.

Who have been some of your influences?
I had great parents and was fortunate to be raised in a two-parent home. In my case, my father was the youngest of 13 children and the only one to go to college. I came to Nevada in 1982 … and we were fortunate to have a legal community already established, to stand on their shoulders. I reflect back to the first black attorney, Charles Keller and the first black judge, Robert Reid, Judge Guy, and attorney Earl White — they brought the first black judiciary leadership in Nevada. I marvel at the courage of Charles Keller — when he was told that he didn’t pass the Nevada bar exam, he took the bar examiners to court to prove that he had indeed passed. In 1983, I passed the Nevada bar exam along with David Phillips, Gina Banks, Lee Siefert and Mike Davis. We were the largest group of African-Americans in Nevada history to pass the bar at one time. Attorney John Bailey, who has one of the best law firms in Nevada, and also Teddy Parker, who also has an outstanding law firm, give us so much promise.

Do you think black people have overcome or do we have very far to go?

I think we are slipping backward. I know we have made some tremendous strides and President Barack Obama is a great example. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, we have stopped pushing education as a number-one priority in our community. I remember when education meant our survival. I’m not saying that education is the panacea, but without it there is a definite roadblock.
I go back to Bobby Sellers, who was a part of our community for a short time as a gaming regulator, and insisted that the gaming facilities allow, in essence, economic civil rights. The jobs that used to just require a strong back and a willingness to show up on time are no longer there. Today’s mechanics are asked to have college degrees.
The economic reality is that we don’t have computers in every home — but schools, families and extended families can demand that their children go to school to learn, and not be disruptive. Families should hold schools accountable to teach their children. By the same token, we must stress to our children that they are in school to be taught, because this will get them to the finish line to compete for a job to take care of themselves and a family.
What is your message to the black community?
We are much better off than our forefathers and foremothers, yet there is so much more we need to do. They didn’t shy away from the struggle. They chose not to make excuses. They said, “I want my son or daughter to have a better life.” We have to go back to that commitment, across the board. It is not good enough to just have one or two make the commitment. We all have to make it. We have to get back to that something we are missing in the community: the concern and love of the extended family. If you think back to the time when you were growing up in the community, if you did something wrong everybody in the neighbor could take you to task for it. When my parents came home, they already knew what I did wrong and corrected my behavior for the second time. My commitment is to serve as a stepping stone for others … so that they might take it to the next level.


2 Responses to “Chief Justice Michael Douglas – African-American heads Nevada Supreme Court”
  1. alhjgyikk says:

    I say If you can’t beat them, beat them, because they will be expecting you to join them, so you will have the element of surprise

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