When teenagers walk into a courtroom, chances are they're gazing up at the equivalent of a Utah mountainside: a high, chilly wall, completely white.
But if Yvette Donosso Diaz's hopes are fulfilled, the monochromatic nature of Utah's judiciary could see a shot of color this spring. Diaz, president of the Utah Minority Bar Association, says 40 percent of the people in the youth corrections system are minorities. Yet the of the state's 17 juvenile court judges, only one is a minority: 3rd District's Andrew Valdez.
If juvenile court proceedings weren't scary enough already, having a judge who comes from an entirely different world can make matters worse, said Diaz. So the field of finalists for a vacant judgeship in 3rd District juvenile court bodes well. The finalists are Summit County attorney Robert Adkins and 3rd District court commissioner Susan C. Bradford, both of whom are white; Christopher Dane Nolan, a Mexican-American deputy district attorney; Janise K. Macanas, a Pacific Islander who works in the Utah Attorney General's Office; and Augustus Chin, an Asian American Salt Lake City prosecutor.
Gov. Mike Leavitt will interview the candidates over the next month, and no one expects him to appoint a judge based solely on ethnicity. "We respect whatever decision the governor makes," said Diaz, though she didn't hide her hope that Leavitt will keep in mind the need to, as she calls it, "diversify the bench."
The governor recently appointed four people of color to the judicial nominating committees, Diaz said. The committees choose finalists for vacant judgeships. Now, she added, young people of color need judges who understand their backgrounds.
"The population in Utah is changing," Diaz said. Yet "the judges are white, the prosecutors are white," and nonwhite people facing the court wonder how well they're communicating with each other. "It's not that the system is unfair. But to many people, it's a foreign system, with no one there they can relate to."
"The white judges are very fair," emphasized Tupakk Renteria, a Hispanic attorney who practices in juvenile court. But if an African American, Latino, Polynesian or American Indian family looks up at the officials and "they see that everyone is white, they may wonder, 'Is the system stacked against me?' " It's an issue of perception and reflection.
Appointing a minority judge is "not a method to correct unfairness or impartiality on the bench," added Trystan Smith, a Salt Lake-based attorney. "In a democracy, all people are represented, and the judiciary is no different. If the judges and lawyers are not reflective of the communities they serve, then the people are not being served."
A judge who belongs to a community of color, Diaz said, "could bring a fresh perspective to the bench, which will benefit everyone." A minority judge could, as Valdez has done, serve as a role model for young people.
In recent years, many more minority attorneys have come to practice on the Wasatch Front, added Smith, an African American who graduated from the University of Utah's law school. "There has been a concerted effort by the U. and by the Y. (Brigham Young University) to recruit minority students and to encourage them to stay in this community. We're seeing the results of that now."
All five of the finalists are well-qualified for the 3rd District juvenile court judgeship, Diaz and Renteria agree. They hope, however, that the governor's selection in early April will reflect Utah's ethnic diversity.