Nov. 15, 2018 — Members of the judiciary should be held accountable for rulings that are implicitly biased, Judge Vanessa Gilmore of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas said as the latest jurist-in-residence and speaker at the University of Houston Law Center's Justice Ruby Kless Sondock Lectureship in Legal Ethics program.
Gilmore, a 1981 graduate of the Law Center, said while implicit bias is primarily a concern in criminal law cases, it is also present in other areas of law as well.
"Our obligation is to reach beyond our own comfort zone and try to be part of the solution," Gilmore said. "As officers of the court we all have an obligation to look at what our own implicit biases are. We have to have some checks and balances in place for judges. If you think a judge is practicing implicit or unconscious bias, or is flat out biased and not trying to hide it, the public needs to call them on it. You can't just let it go. It won't get better unless people speak up and make judges take responsibility."
Implicit bias can be defined as stereotypes, attitudes or preferences that people may consciously reject but may express without conscious awareness. Gilmore said that while it can be a natural human reaction to make assumptions about a case, judges must work hard to remain objective and to follow the precedent of the law.
"As judges we often have a spotlight on us," Gilmore said. "Whenever we're assigned a high-profile case, the first thing the public seems to be most interested in is who appointed us, as if it's the definitive litmus test on how we're going to rule on an issue. The assumption being that because of our background or who we were appointed by will determine that we're going to pre-judge certain issues in cases.
"Even though I think as judges we push back against that characterization, the reality is that all of us pre-judge things based on our background and life experiences. The problem comes when we let our own implicit biases affect how we apply the law."
The Jurist-In-Residence program is named in honor of Justice Ruby Kless Sondock, a trailblazer in the law who graduated as valedictorian and one of only five women in the UH law school class of 1962. After practicing law for many years, Sondock was appointed to the 234th District Court in 1977, making her the first female state district judge in Harris County. She was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court in 1982, making her the first woman to serve in a regular session of the court. She was proclaimed a "Texas Legal Legend" by the litigation section of the State Bar of Texas in 2016.