AABANY Participates in Inaugural NY Diversity Forum

By:  Jason Cheung
AABANY Spring 2017 Intern

Held on April 28, 2017 at the U.S. District Courthouse of the Eastern District of New York (EDNY) and organized by the Federal Bar Association-EDNY Chapter, the inaugural New York Diversity Forum provided an occasion to reflect upon contemporary obstacles and issues confronting diversity in the legal profession.

In addition to AABANY the participating groups were:

  • Dominican Bar Association
  • Federal Bar Association-EDNY Chapter 
  • Federal Bar Association-LGBT Section
  • Hispanic National Bar Association, Region II (NY)
  • International Cultic Studies Association 
  • Latino Judges Association   
  • Latino Lawyers of Queens County 
  • Long Island Hispanic Bar Association 
  • Muslim Bar Association of New York 
  • Puerto Rican Bar Association 
  • South Asian Bar Association of New York

The event commenced with opening remarks from Chief Judge Dora L. Irizarry, U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of New York and the first Hispanic woman to serve as a state judge in New York.  Judge Irizarry covered a spectrum of topics in her speech, ranging from the pleasure of being so intimately involved in the naturalization process, to the historical wisdom of George Washington and how he nurtured what may be the greatest social experiment in the history of the world—the American nation. Judge Irizarry shared the following words of advice from George Washington:  that “we must never despair…” and that “if difficulties arise, we must put forth new exertion and proportion our efforts to the exigencies of the times.” These words from more than two centuries ago resound to present day.

The Muslim Bar Association of New York led the first panel discussion on “Being Muslim in America: An Introduction to Islam and the Challenges Currently Facing the Muslim Community,” featuring speakers Asim Rehman, General Counsel at the Office of the Inspector General of the NYPD, Sania Khan, Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Bureau of the Office of the New York State Attorney General, and Merium Malik, an Immigration and Criminal Defense Attorney in New York. The discussion touched upon topics such as the legal implications and nuances of the recent Trump Executive Orders and travel bans, potential human rights issues stemming from rights violations at the U.S. border, and recent cases brought forth to contest the legitimacy of the Executive Orders.

The next panel discussion was on the topic of “Religious Freedom vs. LGBT inequality,” led by the LGBT Section of the Federal Bar Association, and featured speakers David Thompson, a partner at Stecklow & Thompson, and Susan Sommer, Associate Legal Director and Director of Constitutional Litigation for Lambda Legal, the oldest and largest national legal organization dedicated to the achievement of full civil rights for LGBT persons and persons with HIV.  Much of the discussion centered on the legal inequalities of Mississippi’s legal system (with Sommer citing occasionally hard-to-believe details about the extent of the legal injustices inflicted on LGBT persons in Mississippi) and Sommer’s interpretation of cases such as Obergefell v. Hodges. Thompson discussed the legality of using religious exemptions as an opportunistic means for compromising the rights of LGBT individuals, citing the notorious Hobby Lobby case as an example of the law ruling in favor of employers who opposed the provision of contraception to employees, on the grounds of religious belief.

The third panel discussion, hosted by the International Cultic Studies Association, and featuring speakers Alan W. Scheflin, Emeritus Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law, Stephanie Spanos, M.D., and Robin Boyle Laisure, Professor of Legal Writing at St. John’s University Law School, supplied an interesting departure from the topics of rights and diversity by focusing specifically on the relevance of undue influence and the challenges to establishing its legitimacy as a justiciable issue in the courtroom.  Perhaps the most striking aspect of the discussion was the apparent disjuncture between the troubling consequences for victims of mind control and the lack of legal remedy for such victims.

After a short break came a networking lunch featuring Middle Eastern food catered by Tanoreen, which has deservedly been recognized as being among the best Middle Eastern restaurants in Brooklyn. Many EDNY judges, including Hon. Kiyo Matsumoto, Hon. Peggy Kuo and Hon. Marilyn D. Go, joined the attendees for lunch.

The afternoon session started with a panel presented by the Hispanic National Bar Association, Region II (NY), the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County, the Dominican Bar Association, the Puerto Rican Bar Association, the Long Island Hispanic Bar Association, and the Latino Judges Association, entitled “Racial Profiling of the Latino Community.” Speakers included Jose Perez, Deputy General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF; Luis Pagan of Pagan Law Group; Christopher Cassar of the Office of Christopher Cassar; and Kevin Satterfield of the NYC Department of Corrections. Moderating the discussion was Matthew Fernandez Konigsberg, Regional President of the National Hispanic Bar Association, Region II (NY).  

The panelists recounted horrific cases of injustice, raising issues of police corruption, racial profiling as a precursor to arbitrary detention and prosecution, and the inadequacies of the current Suffolk County legal system to provide relief to victims of racially motivated actions.

The final panel of the forum was led by AABANY and the South Asian Bar Association of New York (SABANY). The topic of discussion was “The Legacy of Exclusion: Learning the Lessons of History, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Current Immigration Executive Orders,” and speakers included Rose Cuison Villazor, Professor of Law at UC Davis School of Law; Amol Sinha, President-Elect of SABANY; and Annie J. Wang, a Staff Attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund.   Annie Wang began with a presentation tracing the linkage between President Trump’s Executive Order and the very first Federal law banning immigration of any one group—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.   Amol Sinha continued the discussion by sharing the story of his mother, who registered to vote after 40 years in America, in an attempt to be more civically engaged, in the face of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in America.  He also focused on the Supreme Court cases of Ozawa and Thind, which posed the question of what constituted “white enough” to be eligible for American citizenship.  

Rose Cuison Villazor then picked up the thread from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Immigration Act of 1917, which created the Asiatic Barred Zone and essentially stopped all immigration from Asia, except for Japan.  Moderating was Christopher M. Kwok, Co-Chair of the AABANY Issues Committee, who wrapped up the discussion with how the question of “Who is an American?” has been at the heart of all immigration debates and exclusionary laws, and how the nature of that answer has been both inclusive and nativist.  Indeed, the lessons of active civic engagement and a clear-eyed understanding of history are critical to ensuring that we remain vigilant against repeating the mistakes of our past.

Many thanks to the Federal Bar Association-EDNY Chapter for organizing this timely forum and for including AABANY and the many other bar associations and groups that took part. 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of The AABANY Advocate. Click here to find that issue and more.