Pantone: Tone Deaf at the OC Bar Association

Negative stereotypes are amongst the most commonly used weapons to sow division and hatred in society. They are used to isolate, marginalize, and negate the value of entire groups of people, and to elevate those outside the targeted group. Stereotypes were used in post-World War 1 Germany to inflame public perception of Jews, scapegoat them for Germany’s economic problems and to justify the passage of the Nuremburg Laws. Stereotypes were used in the South to justify slavery and perpetuate racial segregation. Stereotypes were used to deny women the vote, equal pay, access to quality jobs, and to define women as the property of their husbands. Sadly, the use of stereotypes to isolate and scapegoat minorities remains all too common in America.

Of all professional groups, one would expect lawyers to understand the fundamental ugliness and insidious danger of stereotypes.

Apparently not. At least in the case of Michael Baroni, recently installed president of the Orange County Bar Association. Mr. Baroni has set off a firestorm of controversy within the Orange County legal community by using his very first president’s column in Orange County Lawyer magazine to publish a tone deaf, partisan screed accusing immigrants of attempting to undermine America:

America’s treasured, founding values and ideals, and the “American Dream” itself, are under an unprecedented attack from those who should appreciate it the most—immigrants. Never before has our country opened itself to so many people who openly express contempt for it, or who are blankly dispassionate for it—as opposed to thankfully embracing this country with every cell of their being (as my father, and past waves of immigrants, did). Many refugees have and continue to relocate into our towns and cities, not to assimilate into American culture and ideals, but to remake this land into the very kind of oppressive and volatile nation that they escaped from in the first place.

Ignore that this same attack has recycled and leveled against virtually every group of immigrants since the dawn of our country, perpetuating vile and false stereotypes advanced by anti-immigration groups. Ignore that it is certain to anger and alienate a large percentage of OCBA members. Ignore that it is certain to offend many of the affiliate bars such as the Thurgood Marshall Bar Association, Hispanic Bar Association, Orange County Asian American Bar Association, Korean Lawyers of Orange County, The Iranian American Bar Association, Italian American Bar Association, and the South Asian Bar Association of Southern California. Ignore that it is certain to lose OCBA existing and potential members, and tarnish its reputation.   Ask instead what could possibly have possessed Mr. Baroni to believe his president’s column in the official magazine of the Orange County Bar Association was an appropriate forum for him to express his personal political views?

As a citizen, Mr. Baroni has the constitutional right to the expression of his opinions and ideas, regardless of how offensive they may be to others. Yet the inflammatory nature of Mr. Baroni’s comments was certain to be viewed by many members of the OCBA and the public as a gratuitous, xenophobic and racist attack on immigrants. They were certain to inflame and reinforce the prejudicial views by some in Orange County toward immigrants and the ethnic and racial groups commonly associated with them.

OCBA’s bylaws define its president as “the official spokesperson for the Association, and it shall be the duty of the President to provide leadership in accomplishing the aims and purposes of the Association.” Mr. Baroni’s statements that immigrants were seeking to undermine American values and ideals and represent an existential threat to American culture and stability were made in his capacity as OCBA president, in his president’s column, in OCBA’s official publication. Consequently, the backlash against Mr. Baroni’s comments is directed not only toward Mr. Baroni, but toward OCBA’s broader leadership and how Mr. Baroni’s public statements are handled by the Association. The unprecedented public protest at OCBA’s Judge’s Night and Annual Meeting this past weekend – a protest led and participated in by many OCBA members – could hardly have been surprising.

Certainly, Orange County Lawyer is subject to editorial review to determine quality, relevance and propriety of what is published under the OCBA banner. How could OCBA have allowed such statements to make it to publication? By inflaming public and membership sentiment toward immigrants, the publication of Mr. Baroni’s column calls into question OCBA’s very commitment to its vision statement goal of “demand(ing) inclusivity, charity, and relevancy by and for our members . . . (and) continu(ing) to insist on promoting the integrity and honor of the legal profession while insisting on access to justice for all Orange County residents” and undermines its mission statement: “To Enhance the System of Justice, To Support the Lawyers Who Serve It, and To Assist the Community Served By It.”

The OCBA Executive Committee statement declaring “ . . . neither the OCBA as an organization nor the Executive Committee or the Board of Directors necessarily endorses the views expressed by Mr. Baroni . . . ” is worse than silence. OCBA’s statement ignores how truly offensive Mr. Baroni’s comments were, how these “opinions” were allowed to be published in the first place, and that they were made in Mr. Baroni’s official capacity as OCBA’s president. OCBA’s generic response that “ . . . to the extent those opinions appearing in an OCBA publication offended any of our members, we sincerely apologize” fails to even acknowledge, let alone address, the deeply divisive and inflammatory rhetoric within Mr. Baroni’s column and how it reflects more broadly upon OCBA’s leadership and standing in the community at large. OCBA members and the public should expect more out of the leadership of the largest bar association in sixth largest county in the nation. To his credit, Mr. Baroni has apologized for his column, and truly appears to be remorseful for the controversy it has ignited. Yet his apology fails to reflect any understanding of why his comments were harmful and offensive, let alone wrong.

True leadership inspires, it does not divide. It heals wounds proactively, it does not simply wish them away. OCBA leadership should address this controversy by formally announcing a program of mandatory bias training for its leadership and staff.   Although elimination of bias is a required component of Mandatory Continuing Legal Education of attorneys in California, such training was insufficient to flag the gross impropriety of publishing Mr. Baroni’s views on immigrants. Such training would be a truly meaningful step toward healing the wounds inflicted by Mr. Baroni’s column, and acknowledging the fundamental organizational failures that allowed the column to be published by OCBA in the first place.

The OCBA Board of Directors should further reexamine the process by which the board is selected, elected and appointed. Does OCBA leadership “fairly represent, to the extent reasonable, the diverse composition of the Association, including minorities, women, lawyers in firms of various sizes and sole practitioners, public lawyers, lawyers with various specialties, and lawyers in various geographic areas” as OCBA bylaws dictate?

Time will tell whether Mr. Baroni and OCBA seize upon this unfortunate controversy to meaningfully work toward eliminating bias, fulfilling its commitment to diversity, and healing the wounds inflicted by Mr. Baroni’s column.

James Pantone, Esq. is the founder and owner of Pantone Law in Santa Ana.

Vincent D. Howard, Esq. is the founder and controlling shareholder of Howard Law, PC in Anaheim.

Geraldine G. Ly, Esq. is the founder and owner of the Law Offices of Geraldine Ly in Santa Ana.

Jerry N. Gans, Esq. is the founder and partner in Gans and Rosenfeld in Irvine, CA.

Douglas Vanderpool, Esq. is the founder and owner of Vanderpool Law in Seal Beach, CA.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org