UMass Law students began their first semester of legal studies with a remote orientation session on Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion in the Workplace. A special guest, Justice G. Helen Whitener, the first Black LGBT judge in the State of Washington, delivered the keynote speech and spoke candidly to the students about racism, the importance of equity and inclusion, and their role as gatekeepers to ensure access to justice for all.
Hosted by UMass Law’s Assistant Dean of Students Julie Cahill, Director of Academic Success Amy Vaughn Thomas, and a committee of upper-level law students, the session was attended by members of the entering class. Cahill began by reading the mission statement of UMass Law, which includes the words, “Our collegial community respects and promotes diversity in identity and ideas.”
Justice G. Helen Whitener
Justice Whitener was invited by UMass Law student Levi Eckman, JD ‘22, secretary of the Student Bar Association and a fellow Washingtonian.
She is the first Black woman to serve on the Washington Supreme Court, the fourth immigrant-born Justice, and the first openly Black LGBT judge in the State of Washington. She is often invited to speak to organizations locally, nationally, and internationally on human rights, access to justice, and the responsibility of the judiciary to ensure the rights of all who appear before the court to basic dignity and respect in judicial proceedings.
Diverse backgrounds and experiences matter
“Although the population we serve is diverse, the legal profession is lacking in diversity,” Justice Whitener told the first-year students. “The perspective among the marginalized population is that we don’t care and that the profession is not welcoming.”
Addressing the students, Whitner added, “You are the future faces of the legal profession. One of the questions you will encounter in your profession is what does access to justice mean? Are we treating people we encounter with dignity and respect? Persons seeking access to the court will be judging your performance on how well the justice system represents them or how accessible it is to them.”
Using historical civil rights cases as examples, Justice Whitener illustrated the implicit bias and changing attitudes exhibited in decisions involving the rights of Black citizens.
“In America, equality for the marginalized population has always been a difficult concept to implement because of systemic and institutional racism. Different perspectives can change not only equality, but equity in the application of the law. Changing rules does not always mean changing minds,” she cautioned.
Whitener emphasized to the first-year students that diverse perspectives and backgrounds matter. “All of you have work and life experiences that will be relevant to legal discussions you will engage in at law school. Diversity does not undermine your experience, it enhances it. Share your experiences with your classmates. Be accountable, impartial, and just.”
Future lawyers are gatekeepers to accessing justice
“You will be trained to become a gatekeeper,” Whitener told the future lawyers. “You can create a more inclusive justice system. Diversity and inclusion work in tandem. A person’s diversity should not only be seen but valued. Do not confuse requirements for inclusion for requirements for special rights and privileges. Providing access is not providing special rights.
“We must focus on the impact of our actions, not just our intent. You will become the gatekeepers to access justice,” Whitener said to the incoming students, adding that their “responsibility will be to dismantle these historic and institutional barriers that disenfranchise many individuals.”
At the conclusion of her presentation, Justice Whitener led the new law students in reciting the Lawyer’s Oath and answered questions about her law school and career experiences.
Leader in justice and equity
Justice Whitener served as a Pierce County Superior Court judge until her appointment to the Washington State Supreme Court in April 2020. She is the first Supreme Court justice in the state to assume her position virtually. Before becoming a judge, Justice Whitener litigated both civil and criminal cases as a prosecutor and defense attorney and later as a managing partner of the law firm of Whitener Rainey Writt PS.
She is well recognized by the legal community for her commitment to justice and equity. In 2020, Justice Whitener received the International Association of LGBTQ Judges President Award and in 2019, she was awarded the Washington State Bar Association's C.Z. Smith Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion Award, the King County Washington Women Lawyers President Award, the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association Diversity Award, and the Seattle University School of Law Woman of the Year Award. In 2018, Justice Whitener was the recipient of the Pierce County Washington Women Lawyer's Woman of the Year Award.
She serves as co-chair of the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission and serves on the Board of Directors of the International Association of LGBT Judges as well as on the Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid Oversight Committee.
Born and raised in the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Judge Whitener visited her home country in 2015 at the request of the U.S. Embassy to speak on human rights.