(From left) Cherri Gregg from WHYY; U.S. Congressman Dwight Evans; Kadida Kenner, CEO of the New Pennsylvania Project; Bishop Dwayne Royster of POWER Interfaith; Lena Zwarensteyn, senior director of the fair courts program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center and Straight Ahead at the United Lutheran Seminary for federal court discussion.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Power Interfaith and New Pennsylvania Project joined together in Mt. Airy recently to host a speaker’s panel about the importance of understanding federal court decisions and their impact, while making a call for ethical reform within the judicial branch.
During the opening remarks of the event, U.S. Congressman Dwight Evans reminded Philadelphia residents of the responsibility they have to ensure there’s accountability for the elected officials who are making these life-changing decisions.
“We must do a better job, and use all of the tools we can to uplift the engagement — we must also engage our young people and get our young people to understand the roles and responsibility that they have,” said Evans. “I am on board, I will help in any way I can in terms of my office and in terms of adding my voice in anything I can do to raise the bar.”
The event, which was also a town hall open to the press, activists from organizations, and Northwest Philadelphia community members, occurred on Wednesday, Aug. 23 at the United Lutheran Seminary.
The panel was moderated by WHYY’s Cherri Gregg and included Lena Zwarensteyn, senior director of the fair courts program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Kadida Kenner, CEO of the New Pennsylvania Project, and Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center and Straight Ahead.
“A lot of the decisions that [the federal court] make impacts everything from who gets paid what and is it fair, [to] who has access to basic healthcare, who can marry who they want to marry, who has the right to access an abortion,” said Zwarensteyn. “Every single thing it feels like that we do day in and day out is impacted by our courts.”
Zwarensteyn then proceeded to detail the workings of how federal judges are appointed, and how voting and communicating with elected officials is always a possible method for change.
“The constitution provides that the President nominates these lifetime judges, but the Senate has what is called ‘advice and consent’,” said Zwarensteyn. “Your voice, you talking to your senators, or even your members in the house… really really matters.”
New Pennsylvania Project is a voting rights organization with the primary goal of getting people registered to vote throughout the state. Last year they got 20,000 people registered.
“We are only one of seven states in the entire country that are able to vote for all of our judges in partisan election periods, that’s very rare,” Kenner said. “We have a judicial election coming up for November 7 — I hope you all go out and vote.”
When it comes to the federal courts, Kenner has the same energy when motivating people to want a better tomorrow.
“There is an intersection between the issues you care about and our federal courts because they are pretty much the final arbitrator of all the things we care about,” Kenner added. “It’s important that we advocate… and we know about the process —- there’s so many more [people] who have no idea.”
Increasing minority representation in appointed judges was also a central topic of the discussion.
Each panel member noted that U.S. Senators John Fetterman and Bob Casey, Jr. have recently appointed three judges of color: Kelley B. Hodge and Kai Scott, both of whom are African American, and Mia Roberts Perez, who is multi-racial – and said they would like to see more of such appointments across the system.
“We need to see more people who are women, people of color, people who have been historically and intentionally minimized by our judicial system, people who have had different experiences,” said Zwarensteyn. “Our vision for the courts still hasn’t been realized but we finally have an administration that is harping on that.”
The Biden administration has appointed 140 new lifetime judges, 67% of which are people of color. With Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Kentaji Brown Jackson being a monumental example, Kenner spoke about her deep connection with these moves.
“That means something to me. I feel represented, I feel seen,” Kenner said. “[They would ask] ‘Why do you do this work?’ and I would say I don’t want my mom to leave this earth before seeing a black woman on the Supreme Court, and I can say that my mom got to witness a black woman confirm the United States Supreme Court.”
Also, there are currently vacant positions on Pennsylvania’s circuit court that need to be filled. Throughout the event and especially as it concluded, the panel made sure to emphasize how important it is that people leave the discussion with an intent to spread awareness and communicate with elected officials, to continue to get the right people on the judicial bench.
“Judges are not just a criminal justice or legal issue, this is dealing with women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, union rights, healthcare rights, education rights,” said Holbrook. “It’s not just not impacting folks who are being caught up in the legal system, your rights are also being impacted by these judges.”