Access to Justice Commission Releases New Strategic Plan With Emphasis on Racism, Disparate Impact

Today the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission released its 2020 Strategic Plan, setting goals for the Commission to strive to meet over the next two years.  The Strategic Plan specifies actions the Commission will take to meet these goals and how it will measure its successes and impact. 

Recent events in Tennessee and across the country illustrate that racism exists in society and systems.  In its 2020 Strategic Plan, the Commission explores its role in addressing racism in the justice system.  Since the Commission was created in 2009, it has worked to provide equal access to the court system to all underprivileged Tennesseans.    Going forward, the Commission will refocus its efforts and address issues of racism and disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities head on.

“Events over the last few months have highlighted the need for dialogue on racism that leads to meaningful change,” said William “Bill” Coley, Access to Justice Commission Chair.  “The Commission’s vision is to provide collaborative leadership to create solutions and resources to ensure access to justice for ALL.  We are committed to striving for our mission to be true for all Tennesseans, including our Black and minority communities.”

The Strategic Plan follows the Tennessee Supreme Court’s statement addressing the racism and injustice that remain a mortal threat to the lives of Black people.  “We created the Access to Justice Commission over a decade ago as part of our commitment to equal justice,” said Justice Cornelia Clark, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice and Liaison to the Commission.  “The Commission embodies the leadership and experience needed to steer the judicial branch’s activities to identify and eliminate barriers to racial and ethnic fairness and justice.”

The Commission held a special called meeting to begin the conversation of its responsibility to bring attention to racism in the justice system and make recommendations for change.  Beverly Watts, Commission member and Executive Director of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, facilitated this meeting.  “The Commission must convene stakeholders to discuss issues of race and policies that bring frustration.  People are going to look to the Commission to continue to capture data on racial injustice and continue to push the dialogue forward.”

Initial action steps the Commission is planning to undertake to identify and eliminate barriers to racial and ethnic fairness are listed in the Strategic Plan.  Among them are the creation of live virtual training sessions on implicit bias, racial injustice, poverty, and related topics developed for all judicial and legal system participants.  The Commission will host one large scale virtual training event each quarter beginning in the Fall of 2020. 

“Education on how implicit bias impacts decision-making among all players in the judicial system is an important first step in addressing racial and ethnic fairness,” said Sean Hunt, Access to Justice Commission Member and member of the group that will be steering these training events.  “The Commission is eager to move forward with these virtual events bringing together all access to justice, judicial, and legal stakeholders.”

The Commission’s Faith-Based Initiatives, specifically the Tennessee Faith & Justice Alliance, and Pro Bono Committees will work jointly to develop virtual town halls to be held on an on-going basis.  “The town halls will be bring leaders together at the local level to discuss examples of racial injustice in their communities and develop action steps to address these issues,” stated Monty Burks, Commission member and Co-Chair of the Faith Based Initiatives Committee.  Mr. Burks’ work engaging faith communities and organizations as the State Director of Faith-Based Initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse will be instrumental in helping the Commission in this initiative. 

Amber Floyd, the Deputy City Attorney for the City of Memphis, Commission member, and Co-Chair of the Faith-Based Initiatives Committee added, “The increased focus on racial injustice and creating resources specifically for people of color will be an integral piece of the Tennessee Faith & Justice Alliance’s on-going work.  The virtual town halls will help the TFJA and the Commission identify local champions and bring diverse voices to the table.” 

The Commission is eager to use virtual platforms to engage Tennesseans to carry out its 2020 Strategic Plan.  “COVID-19 has shown us that there are opportunities to reach people remotely in a more meaningful way,” stated Michael Forrester, Co-Chair of the Pro Bono Committee who practices at Hunter, Smith, and Davis, LLP, in Kingsport.  “The Commission will deploy a variety of digital and traditional communication methods to share vital legal information and help to rural, Black, and minority communities.”

The Commission sought out guidance and insight from its access to justice partners, judges of all types, court personnel, attorneys, mediators, faith leaders, and other stakeholders to develop its 2020 Strategic Plan.  The survey respondents indicated that one of the highest values the Commission can provide to the equal justice community is to lead and coordinate the state-level and big picture collaboration between stakeholders. 

Following the onset of the pandemic, the Commission displayed its ability to facilitate and organize its partners by quickly modifying its original plan for its annual #Help4TNDay celebration.  “The Commission assembled a team of over 65 professionals to develop resources for Tennesseans impacted by COVID-19 and the tornadoes that ripped through Middle Tennessee in early March,” added Mary Jo Middlebrooks, Commission member and attorney at Middlebrooks and Gray in Jackson, TN.  “The Commission adopted the themes of Innovation and Responsiveness, promoting virtual and telephonic clinics throughout April and creating online resources for volunteer attorneys and the general public.” 

The survey responses also indicated that the Commission would face a challenge of engaging with a new generation of lawyers.  In the spring, the Commission learned from its law school partners that many law students lost their summer clerkship and employment opportunities due to COVID-19.  The Commission tapped its network of legal professionals and developed a summer fellowship program for law students to provide pro bono legal help remotely.  The A2J Summer Fellows program quickly took shape. 

New Commission appointee, Professor Joy Radice with the University of Tennessee College of Law shared, “The concept to build the A2J Fellows program to pair law students with legal aid organizations, non-profits, and other partners who serve or create resources for vulnerable Tennesseans came together seamlessly due to the Commission’s established reputation.  One piece of our vision is to build mechanisms that match needs with resources.  The A2J Fellows program does just that by supporting partner organizations meet the needs of their clients by providing them with law students as resources.” 

The 2020 Strategic Plan includes goals related to capturing and promoting the work of the Commission to raise awareness of its activities across Tennessee.  “The Commission, like many of its partners, struggles with how to best educate and inform the general public and judicial and legal stakeholders on the ever-increasing civil legal need in Tennessee,” stated Judge Alexander McVeagh, Hamilton County General Sessions Judge and Commission member.  “We are excited to develop and release new resources over the next two years such as a new access to justice website and online videos and trainings to help broaden our reach.

The lack of funding and need to develop funding for the Commission’s work and access to justice in general was a frequent survey response the Commission considered while developing its Strategic Plan.  Therefore the Commission added a new prong to its vision, to build the process for funding.  John Farringer IV, an attorney at Sherrard, Roe, Voigt, and Harbison, PLC and Commission member, has been tapped to lead this new aspect of the Commission’s work.  “I look forward to devising a strategy for sustained funding for the Commission and the equal justice community in Tennessee,” said Mr. Farringer.  “The Commission hopes former Access to Justice Commission members will share their expertise, networks, and valuable time to make this vision become a reality.” 

The full 2020 Strategic Plan is available here.  More information on the Commission may be found here.