By Pavan Parikh
The killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have justly brought an increased focus not only on police brutality but also on inequalities in both the criminal and civil justice systems.
The Ohio Supreme Court recognized in 1999 that there are significant barriers to establishing a fair and equitable justice system. In the conclusion to its report, the Ohio Commission on Racial Fairness noted, “Racism, moreover, can take over institutions, establishing enforced and legally structured barriers to fairness and sanctioning bias.”
Probate Court is a crucial link in our justice system, and Hamilton County’s must do a better job at administering justice for Black constituents.
Probate Court has an incredibly wide jurisdiction, with more than 80 types of cases or specific authorities vested within the court. Nearly all of us will encounter it at some point in our life. Whether you are celebrating the elation of obtaining a marriage license or of adopting a child, or whether you have the sober responsibility of administering a family member’s estate after they have passed, you have to come through Probate Court.
For many people, home ownership is the key to building and creating intergenerational wealth, and when a family member passes, the home constitutes the bulk of their estate. However, many African Americans have been denied access to that engine of wealth creation at the same level as Whites (33.1% compared to 74.5% according to the 2015 State of Black Cincinnati Report).
We must use the resources of the court to help break the cycle of legacy income discrimination, overt redlining and discriminatory banking practices to help Black families build wealth for their children and grandchildren. Not having proper paperwork filed in the event of a health problem or a death in a family can set off a protracted legal battle that can tear families apart and deplete any wealth that has been accrued. We need to get people to have simple estate plans and give people the tools to help them protect themselves and their families.
A Black Agenda for Probate Court is critical to reduce inequalities within the jurisdiction of the court. My five pillars to accomplish this are:
- Establish partnerships with community organizations to develop legal clinics to provide low-cost or free wills, estate planning services and powers of attorney to low-income African American and minority individuals and families.
- Audit adoptions and mental health processes to determine any demographic disparities and work with stakeholders to eliminate disparities in utilization of services, timeline delays or outcomes.
- Institute a process for all magistrate vacancies to ensure an African American is considered for every high-level vacancy, audit contracts and salaries to ensure equality, and require implicit bias training for all employees.
- Form wide-ranging indigency policies and procedures to ensure that people of limited income can still access the court.
- Found clinical programs with local law schools to encourage interest by Black law students in working as mental health law attorneys or estate planning attorneys to address the underrepresentation of African American attorneys in these fields.
Our enduring racial inequalities in the justice system are a direct result of government actions throughout our nation’s history. It is the solemn responsibility of all divisions of government, the courts included, to remedy this deficiency. With the financial and health effects of the pandemic being disproportionately felt by communities of color, the time is now to change our government to be engaged in finding solutions.
To address systemic racism, we must change the people in charge of the system. Every lawyer, judge and judicial candidate should support the findings and recommendations of the Report of the Ohio Commission on Racial Fairness, the 2002 Racial Fairness Implementation Task Force Recommendations, and the 2015 Ohio Supreme Court Report and Recommendation of the Task Force on Access to Justice. At a minimum, we can make a more equitable judicial system by implementing those recommendations.
If I am elected your next Probate Court judge, I pledge to implement these reforms and more and engage in a continuing dialogue with leaders from around our community to make my court truly open, inclusive and accessible to all.
Pavan Parikh is a local attorney and the Democratic-endorsed candidate for Hamilton County Probate Court judge. He lives with his family in Columbia-Tusculum.