Diversity Committee Brings Law & Order to Peace & Justice

Written by USD Law Diversity Committee

The USD Law School Diversity Committee (“Div Com”) hosted a diverse and dynamic gathering of over 100 students, alumni, faculty, staff, and members of the San Diego legal community for its Sixth Annual Diversity Banquet at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice on Friday, April 15.  

Panelists (left to right) Public Defender Warren Den, Judge Esteban Hernandez and Deputy District Attorney Sherry Thompson with Jail Bird Moderator Junichi Semitsu

The banquet featured a panel presentation titled “Law and Order: Diversity Unit,” which focused on issues of diversity in the courtroom.  The panel consisted of Judge Esteban Hernandez, Deputy Public Defender Warren Den, and Deputy District Attorney Sherry Thompson and was moderated by Professor Junichi Semitsu, the Div Com faculty advisor.  Professor Semitsu began by noting that the panel consisted of all the key players in a criminal trial except for the criminal defendant, at which point he removed his tuxedo jacket and pants to reveal a bright orange jumpsuit with the words “Jail Bird” on the back.

While a stripping inmate moderator might normally set the bar for captivating the audience’s attention, the panel was unusually forthright, blunt, and opinionated, making for a lively and memorable discussion.  The panel tackled questions that covered everything from racial stereotypes in jury selection to the question of whether prosecutors, defense lawyers, or non-lawyers are better positioned to work towards erasing the race- and class-based disparities plaguing the justice system.  

All three panelists emphasized the importance of diversity in the criminal justice system to ensure all parties appear to get their “fair shake.”  Mr. Den, for example, suggested that a diverse set of attorneys at the Public Defender’s Office provides the defendant with a sense of comfort to enable the free flow of information.  Ms. Thompson highlighted diversity’s benefit in gaining trust when working with victims and witnesses. Judge Hernandez added that having diverse persons in the courtroom provides a sense of fairness to all trial participants.

After the panel discussion, outgoing Chair Lisa Cheng introduced the new and stellar Div Com board for 2011-2012: Co-Chairs Christine Salib and Lindsey Pho, Admissions Co-Chairs Michelle Buxton and Michael Yu, Battle of the Brains Co-Chairs Sam Ceballos and Kimberlee Chao, Banquet Co-Chairs Annie Nguyen and Kim Nguyen, Treasurer Annie Nguyen, and Social Chair Dianne Anderson.

Michelle Buxton then honored the graduating 3Ls (Lisa Cheng, Esther Kim, and Kevin Qi) for their service to Div Com during their time at USD.  Afterwards, Lisa Cheng presented Professor Semitsu with a gift on behalf of Div Com—a fog machine—which he stated he would use for future Div Com events or, perhaps, to start one of his classes.

Finally, the first ever Maria Shih Brilliance Award for Diversity Awareness and Stupendous Service was awarded to 2L Michelle Buxton for single-handedly spearheading the admissions workshop and banquet.  Ms. Buxton was the first recipient of this award, which was created to honor USD alumna Maria Shih, one of the founding mothers of the Diversity Committee.  Two of the many luminaries in the audience, Judge Vallera Johnson and Peter Quon from the California Attorney General’s San Diego office, know Ms. Shih and clearly approved of the award.

The evening concluded with Professor Semitsu leading a piano bar in the Degheri Alumni Center’s living room.  Public Defender Den, attorneys Hali Henderson and Kathryn Snyder, and 1L Owen Praskievicz were four of the many people who joined in on songs that varied from Katy Perry’s “Firework” to Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Given the many connections made throughout the night, the incoming Div Com board is already preparing to create an even better banquet, mixer, and piano bar next year. 

2011-2012 Div Com Board: (left to right) Michelle Buxton, Christine Salib, Junichi Semitsu (hiding in the back because of his orange jumpsuit), Sam Ceballos, Michael Yu, Lindsey Pho, Kim Nguyen, Annie Nguyen.

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