Opinion: The Bar As A Melting Pot
I was an English major in college but it seems I took more courses in anthropology and related topics than I did in my major. Or maybe it's just that I remember those courses better than Middle English authors. Either way, a bit of background in sociology isn't a bad thing when you are trying to take a pulse on where the bar is today and where it is going.
A big effort in bar leadership in the last few years has been towards fostering diversity. Many who set out to do this thought that they would attract folks with different social, national, ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds into the big tent. Think melting pot.
Now, it appears that achieving diversity means developing alliances with groups who self-define along these lines and who make it very clear that they wish to preserve their identity as "other," while at the same time being invited into the bigger group.
I had the pleasure of hearing Second Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes speak the other night at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association. I never thought of him as a Puerto Rican judge, just a very good one who happened to have a Spanish name. But as he began his talk (he let on that he had been asked to reminisce and he took that diktat seriously) it became very apparent that despite the fact that he was not the first person anyone might identify as a struggling immigrant made good, he very much understood that his ethnic identity defined him as much as his many professional accomplishments.
When Cabranes met with the late U.S. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff prior to the announcement of his appointment, he asked the senator if the fact that he would be the first Puerto Rican judge named to a mainland federal bench might be added to the press release. After a pensive minute or two, the senator said "No, I don't think so." It was important to the judge but not to the senator, who may have thought ethnic affiliation more of a millstone than a capstone.
Cabranes started his time on the federal bench at about the same time as I started trying cases. As I said, I never thought of him as "ethinic," just as a good judge. I remember one day when a juror asked to be released from duty because her English was poor. "Well," he said, "you speak better English than my mother. Request denied."
I remember another case when my witness, an affirmative action officer for a large municipality, was testifying about his efforts to obtain a diverse pool of applicants for a civil service exam. Carbanes asked him how he categorized Hispanic applicants. The fellow, who was African American and who had only two categories (white and black) on this form, said he called them "off-whites." Apparently despairing at ever making headway with my dolt of a witness, the judge then turned to me and asked how we would categorize Spanish-speaking Black Cuban Jews, an identifiable minority in both Cuba and New York. Point made.
Some of you may remember that Carbanes' name was raised as a possible nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. He let on that he understood that he was never in serious contention, but that the White House had kept mum on that in order to mollify the many who had send cards and letters in support of him. He was flabbergasted when Lloyd Cutler, the president's counsel, told him they were ignoring the "barrels" of mail received because no one seriously believed such an ethnic appointment would be made. Why would it be such a stretch to appoint a Hispanic? Weren't Brennan, Brandeis and Scalia all "ethnic" appointments?
My dad was born in Canada, but anglicized our name and wanted nothing more than to be considered an American. (Du-boys, not Dub-wa.) I adopted the French way. My mother's parents were from Ireland. When I told an Irish cousin that I had acquired dual citizenship, his incredulous response was (add a thick brogue here), "Why the hell would you do such a ting?"
Used to be if you called someone a Jew, or an Italian or a gay lawyer, you might get a knuckle sandwich in reply. Now folks are ready to embrace the fact that beyond the melting pot is a world where we eschew homogeneity in favor of celebrating the religious, ethnic, place of origin or sexual orientation which defines us as much as our professional identities. We can all be different and still part of a bigger picture. And Cabranes can be a good judge and the first Puerto Rican on the federal bench, too. •