A Justice’s Perspective on Racial Justice

By Karl O. Riley, Esq.

Earlier this year, I had the honor of interviewing the Honorable Michael L. Douglas—a legal pioneer and first black Justice of the Supreme Court of Nevada. I was humbled to gain this legal giant and legend’s perspective on several issues, including his career and current events, specifically racial justice. I hope you enjoy the interview!

Honorable Michael L. Douglas

What fact do most people not know about you?

I love to work with my hands. I complete most of the do-it-yourself projects for my houses, including: building a free-standing garage, building a three-car garage, and converting a three-and-a-half car garage into a family room and a garage. The latter required plumbing, carpentry, electrical work. I learned these skills as a young adult when I fixed various things for my parents and extended family.

These projects are humbling, require patience, and teach you that you cannot take shortcuts if you want a satisfactory result. I further learned from these projects that I was only limited by the parameters I placed on myself. Of course, I am not saying that I have unlimited abilities; rather, by pushing myself, I was able to test the ceilings of my capabilities. I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction when I complete these projects.

What is the greatest accomplishment of your career?

Amidst my accomplishments, my greatest one is quite simple. My father told me one of the most important things is providing for yourself and providing for your family. I take pride in accomplishing this feat. I also take pride in helping others pursue their goals. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing that you have helped others.

What do you miss and not miss about being a Justice on the Supreme Court of Nevada?

I do not miss the 6 a.m. flights to northern Nevada. I miss the issues of first impression. It is a rare opportunity when you get to decide law, and I really enjoyed those opportunities.

The UNLV Boyd Law School recently named a Prelaw Fellowship Program after you? What inspired the program, and how is it progressing?

Growing up, I did not have any lawyers in the family or have any lawyers in my network to discuss the profession. For this reason, I never thought about becoming a lawyer. Although my family expected me to go to college, I was not exposed to the professional fields (e.g., doctors, lawyers, and dentists) until college. Before then, I was only surrounded by people in the blue-collar industry (e.g., construction workers, factories, and teachers). As I enjoyed history and political science, I was interested in becoming a teacher and coach, so I was focused on pursuing a master’s degree.

Around my junior year in college, a friend of mine convinced me that a law school education would be invaluable to any career that I chose. He was right, and I always tell people interested in legal education that law school teaches you how to learn.

In short, the need for more minority lawyers inspired the program. Similar to my experience, many minority students likely do not have lawyers in their network to learn about the legal profession as a possibility. If we expose these young people to the legal field early in their educational careers, we will increase the number of minority lawyers in the future.

In January 2021, we will host the inaugural class of Fellows for one week of simulated law school classes in criminal law, legal writing and legal analysis, and LSAT preparation. This program is the culmination of years of hard work, and I am very proud of it. Thank you to all the partners and donors that helped make it happen. If you would like to learn more about the program, contact nakia.jackson-hale@unlv.edu.

This month’s issue is about racial justice. What does racial justice mean to you?

Racial justice in law means a level playing field—that not only do you get your day in court, you get a fair day in court. In sum, you are not guilty merely because you are a minority defendant. To ensure equity, there must be people of similar backgrounds representing the defendant, charging the defendant, on the bench, in the jury, and—sometimes overlooked—submitting the pre-sentencing reports. There are many times that similar defendants convicted of the same crime receive different sentences (i.e., probation vs. incarceration) based on race or wealth.

These unseen or unrecognized biases are examples of racial inequities in the justice system.

What role do attorneys play in racial justice?

Attorneys fight for their client and fight for change. I was first exposed to racial justice when I clerked at the largest misdemeanor arraignment court in Los Angeles County. When the attorneys attempted to defend these clients, the defendants in many cases would plead guilty, take credit for time served to get out of jail, and get back to work. Many defendants did not have money for bail or to fight the case, but getting out of jail and keeping their job was more important for familial stability.

Which leads us to bail—another example of inequity in the justice system but this time, financial. Initially, bail was supposed to guarantee appearances for dangerous criminals or defendants that were flight risks. Over time, society accepted bail as the norm for petty crimes or defendants without prior offenses, and bail has wreaked havoc on poor and minority defendants and their communities because many families cannot afford a multiple thousand dollar bill. Thus, the defendants take pleas for smaller crimes so they can return to their job instead of remaining in jail to fight the charge.

Describe the legal landscape and racial climate when you first moved to Las Vegas, NV?

There was an element of “home-towning” in the state court when I first came here from private practice in Philadelphia, PA. The rules of procedure were not followed closely in state court, for example, some people would still be allowed to argue their points without filing supporting papers required by the rules.
There were also not many minority attorneys. In one of my first appearances as a legal services attorney, I was seated at the counsel’s table, and the judge walked in. After calling the case, the judge looked at me and opposing counsel and stated, “since no counsel is here for the defendant, I will announce my ruling in the case.” Opposing counsel corrected the judge that I was, in fact, the counsel for the defendant. Because there were so few (about ten or so) attorneys practicing in Nevada at the time, there was an assumption that you were probably not an attorney if you were not one of the known African-American attorneys.

It was also very stressful. Because there were so few African-American lawyers, a certain level of competency was required because if you were perceived as incompetent, that reputation might be placed on the remaining African-American attorneys.

Has racial justice improved over time?

Yes, it has, but there is still room for improvement, as there are still seemingly unjust police activities. For example, minorities may be stopped by police if they are driving an expensive car, which may not happen to their majority counterparts. I have two personal examples. One time, I took one of my car out for a spin, and the first question I was asked was whether I owned the car, insinuating that I could not afford this nice car. Another time, driving home late at night after trial, I was pulled over for no reason. Two officers approached the car. The younger officer stated that I was going pretty fast. I denied the allegation because I knew it to be false, but the officer insisted. In both instances, the conversation changed after the officers learned I was a lawyer. Unfortunately, other minorities may not be so lucky.

To be sure, I am not bashing the police or asking to defund the police. I understand the police’s importance to the community and the dangerous nature of their job. I have and will always ask the police to treat me like you treat everyone else. However, holding the police accountable for their wrongs or injustice does not automatically translate into a referendum against the police. I simply advocate for accountability and against all forms of injustice and bias, including the structural constructs of prosecutorial discretion, uninformed grand juries, the withholding of camera footage, and the coroner’s inquest that limit someone’s fair day in court or prevent all of the facts being disclosed for adjudication. If we removed these constructs and replaced them with independent investigations that submit all of the facts to an impartial jury, justice will be served.

In light of the events of 2020, do you think that we have turned the corner on racial justice?

The jury is still out. Normally, after racially charged events occur, change has minimal staying power. People usually get selective amnesia and become comfortable, and no real change happens. This time, there are indicia that things are different. There were more people from the majority and other races joining the protests. More companies recognized and acknowledged the injustice, and they made commitments to stop unconscious bias within their organizations. I hope that these conversations never stop until racial justice is obtained, but I am concerned in light of post-election events that occurred in D.C.

Do you have any advice for attorneys who want to support racial justice?

The same advice that I have for practicing law: be prepared, have a plan, and execute the plan. Some people may execute without a plan. Some people may not be fully prepared. But you need all three. Use your skillset with similarly minded people to move mountains. A prime example of this is when Justice Thurgood Marshall executed his plan to fight racial injustice, culminating in the Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) decision. But Brown could not come to fruition until lawyers forced courts to recognize racial inequities in other parts of society under the law.

Reflections from interviewer

One point during the interview especially hit home for me. Justice Douglas noted that my newborn daughter, Nevada Rose, will leave the house with her friends as a young adult, and I will be undoubtedly worried if she will return home safely or have an unnecessary altercation with the police. I hadn’t thought of that yet, but in a transcendent moment, I immediately imagined my parents’ similar fear when I hung out with my friends as a young adult. I know I am not ready for that feeling, and I, too, hope we have turned the corner on racial justice issues. Thank you, Justice Douglas, for the opportunity.

About the author
Karl O. Riley, Esq.

Karl O. Riley, Esq. is the Office Managing Partner at Cozen O’Connor, and AmLaw 100 firm. He defends multi-billion dollar clients in commercial litigation and labor & employment actions.

About this article

This article was originally published in the “Racial Justice” issue of Communiqué, the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association, (February 2021). See https://clarkcountybar.org/about/member-benefits/communique-2021/communique-february-2021/.

© 2021 Clark County Bar Association (CCBA). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any portion of this issue is allowed without written permission from the publisher. Editorial policy available upon request.