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Emily Hartley, Published June 21 2010

Racial bias in courts topic of study

North Dakota courts are looking for citizen input on the fairness of the state’s judicial system.

The Commission to Study Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts will hold public input meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Fargo Public Library, where they hope to hear from members of minority groups about their experiences in the court system.

“In theory, the court is supposed to be a place of justice where everyone is equal,” said Northeast District Judge Donovan Foughty, co-chair of the commission with North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Carol Ronning Kapsner. “We rule on the facts, and certainly that’s our goal.”

The commission was established last October to study fairness regarding racial and ethnic minorities in courtroom processes, procedures and attitudes. More specifically, the committee will focus on treatment in courtrooms, disposition of cases and employment practices, as well as language barriers with new Americans.

“Most states have done these types of studies in the past, so in that respect, we’re coming to the game a little late,” Foughty said, adding that North Dakota is one of about 10 states that has not yet completed a study on the issue.

In addition to the Fargo meetings, the committee plans to gather input at eight other locations in the fall, including the state’s four Native American reservations. Foughty said Native Americans are the state’s largest minority group.

In Fargo, a large percentage of the minority population is made up of refugees and new Americans.

Sinisa Milovanovic, program director of New American Services at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, said advertisements for the event have been translated into eight languages in addition to English.

“The goal is to hear from the people” rather than follow suppositions, said Milovanovic, one of 23 members of the committee across the state.

He said anyone is invited to attend the meetings, regardless of racial background, to share both positive and negative experiences in the courts.

The meetings will begin with a short introduction of the committee’s goals and of three to five panel members who will listen to speakers’ experiences. The public is encouraged to drop in any time throughout the meeting to listen or speak.

People wishing to submit anonymous comments or have their experiences read by someone else at the meeting can e-mail them to the committee before the meetings.

Foughty said the committee hopes the next few days will help members gain a more specific understanding of issues facing North Dakota’s minorities.

“We’re trying to get some input from those ethnic groups in Fargo that may have some unique experience that we didn’t think of,” he said.

The meetings will be held Tuesday and Wednesday from 5:15 to 9 p.m. in the Fargo Public Library community room.

If you go

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Hartley at (701) 235-7311