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American Bar Association President Outlines Attorneys' Role in Wake of Police Shootings

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A legal heavy hitter was in Boise July 14, outlining the challenges the American legal profession faces following a recent spate of high-profile incidences of racial and anti-police violence.

"All citizens and law enforcement rely on the rule of law," said American Bar Association President Paulette Brown, speaking at the Idaho State Bar annual meeting at the Riverside Hotel.

Brown said her "head has been really spinning" in the wake of the July 5 death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.; the July 6 killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn.—both black men, both shot by police officers—as well as the killing of five police officers during a July 7 Black Lives Matter in Dallas.

The tragic events have kicked off a series of ongoing, nationwide demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter movement, which held a rally July 10 and will hold another at the Idaho State Capitol Friday, July 16.

According to Brown, it's the job of the American Bar Association and member attorneys to combat the prejudice and bias highlighted by the killings. According to the ABA, the legal profession is 89 percent white and 64 percent male, making it one of the least diverse professions. One way to address inequities within the justice system, she said, is to better match the profession's demographics with the rest of the country. One way to do that, she added, is to encourage more young people to pursue higher education and possibly become lawyers themselves.

"We need to create a pipeline to college and law school, and not a pipeline to prison," Brown said.

Idaho has challenges of its own that dovetail into the broader critique fronted by Black Lives Matter that bias within law enforcement and the legal system contributes to the disproportionate incarceration and death among non-whites and the poor.

For instance, ACLU-Idaho filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Idaho in June over its inadequate public defender system.

The Gem State is also no stranger to police violence. In the first month following the rollout of body cameras for the Boise Police Department, BPD officers were involved in two shootings that resulted in deaths. Those incidents are still under investigation. 

Nevertheless, according to the Idaho State Bar, member attorneys volunteered 15,000 hours of service in 2015. Idaho Legal Aid Services reported more than 1,200 hours of pro bono services during the same period. According to Idaho State Bar Commission President Trudy Fouser, there may be no all-encompassing solution for eliminating bias within the legal system.

"I think we've known for a long time there's a deficit," she said.

Efforts are, however, under way to expand legal access to the poor and minority communities, and bring members of those communities into the legal profession to "get new insight." 

"Our focus is broad enough to include everyone in need of legal assistance," Fouser said. "I think what gets lost are the efforts that are being made."