Ask an Expert: Cheryl Wattley, UNT Dallas College of Law

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Cheryl Wattley, UNT DallasUNT System HR is bringing UNT World experts directly to you with this periodic and always timely installation called "Ask An Expert." So, let's ask...

EXPERT: Cheryl Wattley, Professor of Law, UNT Dallas College of Law
EXPERTISE: Criminal Law, Civil Rights Litigation

Cheryl Wattley received her Juris Doctorate degree from Boston University College of Law, where she was a Martin Luther King Jr. fellow. In 1994, she received the Dallas Bar Association's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award. More recently, she authored a book about Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher's bravery in her fight to end segregation in Oklahoma, helping to pave the road to Brown v. Board of Education. She also won Honorable Recognition in a national contest for her essay, "The Tough Minded, Tender Hearted Lawyer," based upon a sermon by Dr. King. As we approach this MLK Day on the heels of massive nationwide civil rights protests in response to ongoing police brutality and racial injustice, and the recent deadly mob violence at the Capitol, Professor Wattley provides her expertise and unique insight into what should be at the forefront of our thoughts on this MLK Day, the Black Lives Matter movement and the importance of a successful UNT Dallas College of Law.

Q: What is at the forefront of your thoughts on this MLK Day?
As we are poised to celebrate the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, we are engulfed by images of a mob storming the United States Capitol, breaking windows, smashing through doors, beating Capitol police officers, pillaging and vandalizing the hall of democracy. American flags perverted from symbols of democracy to weapons as flag poles were used to ram windows and beat police. What a juxtaposition: the memories of the Dr. King-led nonviolent marches, people kneeling in protest in front of lines of armed police, pummeled by fire hoses and taunted

by police dogs barking, baring teeth, with today’s scene of fire extinguishers being thrown at helmeted police, a policeman screaming in agony as he was caught by the mob as it forced its way inside, the looting and desecration of the symbols of democracy. 

When we focus on the pictures and videos from the assault on the Capitol, we cannot lose sight of what caused that riot, what brought so many to that place of an attack, not just on a symbolic structure, but upon the very heart of democracy: The exercise of the right to vote. There can be no denying that the repeated unfounded and disproven claims of voter fraud, that the presidential election had been stolen, caused that mob action. It is no coincidence that the counties falsely assailed as having committed voter fraud had heavy African American voter turnout. It is not accidental that the demands for recount after recount were pointed at urban and heavy minority populations. How poignant, then, that within days we will celebrate a man whose work led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the foundation for the political activism that empowered black and brown voters to so impact a presidential election.  

Dr. King repeatedly spoke of the impact of silence: "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people. In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. There comes a time when silence is betrayal."

Where were the voices who defended the right of citizens, especially the targeted citizens of color, to vote? Where were the voices that opposed the efforts to restrict access to the ballot by reducing the number of polling places, the manipulation of the U.S. Postal Service, and the denouncing of absentee voting, especially during a pandemic? Where were the voices to defend the poll workers and vote counters who labored in a record voter turnout election? Where were the voices to challenge the efforts to again disenfranchise voters of color? Where, even, were the voices to defend the duly elected local Secretaries of State who confirmed the legitimacy of their state’s election?  

When there is silence, extremist voices resonate with deafening noise, creating a cacophony that repels reason. When there is quiet, discord is not tempered, but amplified as it swirls feeding upon itself. When the voices of good people are missing, the voices of destructionists fill the void, creating a shrillness summoning like a dog whistle.    

So, on this holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we must ask ourselves, were we silent in this time of challenge?

Q: How do you view the Black Lives Matter movement?
 There can be no denying that the summer of 2020 was a time of challenge and controversy. In the midst of a pandemic that exposed the health care disparities that have plagued communities of color, hundreds of thousands of marchers of all races and ethnicities from across the nation protested the killing and abuse of African American citizens by police officers. The killing of George Floyd propelled a spotlight on policing tactics as well as seemingly never-ending use of deadly and excessive force. Chants of “Say Their Names” made us confront the horror of black men and women being killed at the hands of law enforcement officers. 

But, this focus on police shootings also put a spotlight on the systemic racism that is foundational to this nation. It prompted a flurry of media attention, conferences and new websites addressing racism and bias. It sent challenges to the nation to once and for all candidly acknowledge and address the cancerous evil of racism. It drew attention to the importance of allyship in the fullness and richness of its meaning. As Dr. King told us, "[t]he ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." The Black Lives Matter movement, the months of challenge and controversy, prompts the question as to where we stood. 

Did we stand with the recognition of the need to declare that "Black Lives Matter," or were we drawn to avoid the message of the importance of Black lives with a rejoinder that "all lives matter?" Did we stand with respectful admiration for the thousands who braved the pandemic to take to the streets to give voice and action to their protest, or did we attempt to diminish those efforts by focusing on the comparative few who were vandalizing and looting? Did we watch with horror and disbelief at white homeowners who brandished guns at protestors marching to a mayor’s home as part of their protest, or did we react with an attitude that the protestors got what they deserved? Did we stand with disbelief and revulsion when peaceful protestors were tear-gassed and forcibly moved from the place of peaceful assembly so that a president could pose with a Bible in front of a church, or did we applaud the clearing of the plaza for that political antic? Did we understand that the calls to defund the police were a cry to stop the killing and abuse of people of color by individuals cloaked with the mantle of authority, or did we choose to pervert the message into a farcical cry for anarchy and lawlessness? Did we use this summer of challenge and controversy to learn, grow and understand the need to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter,” or did we simply turn from any enlightenment, desperate to feel comfortable and self-righteous in our world?  

The Black Lives Matter movement forces us to look at the soul of this nation. It requires that we acknowledge the contradiction between the democratic ideals we tout, and the inequities and racism that infect our systems. It compels us to ask, where do we stand?  

Q: Why is it so important that the mission of the UNT Dallas College of Law be fulfilled?
 As a public law school in a large metropolitan area, UNT Dallas College of Law was founded with the mission to expand the opportunity of a legal education to diverse students. This mission reflects the importance of lawyers within our society. Twenty-six of our country’s 45 presidents were lawyers. The incoming president and vice-president were both lawyers. Almost 200 members of the 116th Congress are lawyers. Throughout all levels of government, from state houses, mayoral offices and town councils, lawyers have constituted a significant percentage of those elected officials. However, the legal profession has remained predominantly white male.  

The law school was also founded with the purpose to increase access to legal representation by communities that are traditionally under-resourced. Law touches so many aspects of our lives. It is important that people be able to get the assistance of a lawyer for situations that they cannot handle on their own.   

In 2014, the first students walked through the doors of the law school. Those students embraced the risk of enrolling in a law school that had not yet attained accreditation from the American Bar Association. They entered with the faith that UNT System, UNT Dallas and UNT Dallas College of Law administrators and faculty would marshal the resources and programs to meet the ABA standards to become an accredited law school. Quite literally, the value of their law degree was on the line, for if accreditation was not obtained, they would not be able to take the bar exam and ultimately become licensed to practice law.  

Three years later, in 2017, the law school achieved provisional status, the first step toward accreditation. Before the end of next year, the law school will submit its application for full accreditation. With approval of that application, the College of Law will become a fully accredited ABA law school.  

That will be an important moment in the life of the law school. Not only will it signal the ABA’s formal authorization, it will be a validation of the innovative curriculum, the school’s programs and the law school mission.