Alan Page has had many titles: Minnesota Supreme Court justice. Mentor to students of color. Purple People Eater (as a Minnesota Viking). Barely a year after he stepped down from the bench and entered retirement, Page, 70, continues to be a force in the legal field as well as the community. “There’s lots going on,” he said, with philanthropic endeavors, work on his third children’s book and the making of maple syrup. Earlier this month, he hosted the first Justice Alan Page Elimination of Bias Continuing Legal Education (CLE) Seminar; the event, presented through his Page Education Foundation, addressed inclusion and diversity in the legal industry. The law field continues to be one of the least racially diverse professions in the country, with 88 percent of lawyers being white.
Q: What was the impetus of hosting the CLE seminar?
A: In recognition of my retirement, having served on the court’s elimination of bias committee for 16 years while I was there, it was a natural area to try to do some work in.
Q: When you talk about the “elimination of bias,” what sort of issues are you referring to?
A: In 1993, the court issued a report from a task force it had instituted that showed that, for people of color who were involved with our judicial branch of government on the criminal justice side, you were more likely to be arrested, charged, prosecuted, convicted and given longer sentences than somebody who was white. On the juvenile and child protection side, the report established that if you were a person of color, you were more likely to be removed from your home than a white person. On the other side of things, in terms of employment, people of color did not show up as employees within the system so that people who came into the system didn’t see anybody who looked like them. Our goal with the CLE seminar was to, one, provide information — we had about 200 lawyers — to identify the problem and also to show that things haven’t changed substantially since the 1993 report and to get them involved in their role as lawyers to get them involved in bringing about change.
Q: How can lawyers help eliminate bias?
A: Artika Tyner, interim officer for diversity and inclusion and public policy at the University of St. Thomas, talked a lot about implicit bias. She was the featured presenter, and she was fabulous. I talked about all the problems that the task force identified in terms of racial biases. It’s not as if people are sitting there intentionally acting in a discriminatory way. It’s those subtle biases that we don’t account for at least in some degree that underlay or perpetuate the problem. She walked us through identifying our biases and how we can combat them.
Q: How can the judicial system be a more inclusive place where more people of color can work?
A: The scope of this problem does not lend itself to simple solutions. But it does lend itself to everyone involved at every step and at every level being conscious of what they are doing when it comes to the people working in the system making sure that we include as employees, as judges, as law clerks, as people providing social services, people of color. Our system of justice relies on trust and confidence. And when the people we serve don’t have that trust and confidence, it undermines really our entire democracy. We have to be consciously and constantly vigilant to make sure that those who serve are sensitive to and understanding of the people they are serving.
Q: As you served as the first black justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, how did you balance your duty as a judge and any pressures you may have felt to represent the black community?
A: It wasn’t a case of balancing or anything else for me. It was understanding and feeling very strongly about the notion of “equal justice under the law.” That phrase is more than just words on the Supreme Court building. Working to ensure that we provided as a court, as a judicial system, equal justice — that to me meant trying to ensure that every case that came through the door got treated the same. And constantly checking my own biases to ensure that my views and decisions on cases were based on the law presented or the facts and not on some personal preference or some perceived racial identity. I think that’s what we all have to do on an ongoing basis. For me, I didn’t have to worry about what people thought.
Q: What are your thoughts on the current state of distrust harbored by some members in the black community of the criminal justice system?
A: I will say this much. When people don’t have trust and confidence, it’s a problem. If you don’t have trust and confidence in the court system, if you don’t have trust and confidence in the law enforcement system, why would you take your problems to them to have them resolved? This isn’t new or unique to what’s going on today. These kinds of things have been going on for a long time. When you lose that trust and confidence, you might as well solve your problems in the street, and that’s why I say it’s dangerous to our democracy. We should not be surprised. Everybody has got to be at the table if we are going to build trust and confidence. It can’t be one group dictating to another. That’s how you end up losing trust and losing confidence in the system.
Q: What would you say is your legacy?
A: I tend not to look back. My focus is “What can I do today that provides some benefit?”