WMC Features RSS

Appointing Judges Who Have Fought for Justice

| February 28, 2014

title
Scales of Justice

I remember bringing my daughter Emily, who was about twelve, to a dermatologist for some blemishes that were bothering her. The dermatologist was a thirty-something woman with an authoritative, yet warm demeanor. Emily had gone in teary-eyed and concerned about her appearance, but she walked out smiling, confident, and declaring: “I want to be a dermatologist!” The experience strengthened my belief that we see possibilities for ourselves in the people we interact with, and we get a sense of fair treatment when we can imagine ourselves in the same roles. 

Research backs up my anecdotal claim. Nilanjana Dasgupta wrote in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that exposure to female leaders dramatically reduces stereotypic beliefs about gender. Seeing women in positions of power will greatly enhance the acceptance of an election of a woman U.S. president.

My research has focused on gender parity in nontraditional fields, including the American presidency. The same “seeing is believing” thinking is part of a recent call to action by the Alliance for Justice (AFJ), which has just released its report “Broadening the Bench: Professional Diversity and Judicial Nominations.” It argues that a truly diverse judiciary “is one that not only reflects the gender, ethnic, sexual orientation, and racial diversity of the nation, but is also comprised of judges who have been advocates for clients across the socio-economic spectrum, seeking justice on behalf of everyday Americans.”

Often when we think of diversity on the courts, our minds immediately go to gender and race, but diversity is much more comprehensive than that. The report cites the advocacy work that Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg did when they were attorneys, and how that advocacy has informed their judicial decision making. Experience with advocacy serves our judiciary because it offers the richness of passion and an understanding of the real-world problems that people bring before the courts.

The Alliance for Justice calls upon: lawyers with public interest backgrounds to seek out and apply for federal judgeships; advocacy groups, lawyers, and others who work on judicial nominations to actively recruit judicial candidates; state judicial selection commission and senators to encourage lawyers with professionally diverse backgrounds to apply for judicial vacancies; President Obama to make professional diversity a priority.

The White House has a graphic on its website touting the administration’s “unprecedented commitment [to] expanding the diversity of our nation's highest courts” and citing the high percentage of appointments of women, men of color, and LGBT people to the federal bench. But professional diversity is a different measure: the AFJ points out that among President Obama’s judicial nominees, only 4 percent worked as lawyers in public interest groups; the same number have “significant experience” representing labor; and about 85 percent have been either corporate attorneys, prosecutors, or both. 

Indeed, the Supreme Court itself is more diverse than ever, but there is still room for improvement. All the justices have Ivy League educations, and a majority are Catholic. There are no current justices with any active, wartime military experience. (Justice Stephen Breyer was briefly in the Army.)

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said: “I strive never to forget the real-world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses, and government.” She is the only justice with trial court experience. It is this sentiment that is at the heart of the AFJ’s report because a more inclusive approach to nominations to the judiciary will bring greater justice to the everyday Americans who come before it. Sandra Day O’Connor concedes that “all of us come to the Court with our own personal histories and experiences,” and Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent her life as a champion for gender equality. As Harvard Professor Michael J. Klarman writes in a tribute essay to her, “Ginsburg was an organizer, mobilizer, publicist, and educator for the sex equality movement—just as Thurgood Marshall had been for the civil rights movement a generation earlier.”  She has earned the moniker “legal architect of the women’s movement.”

We need to see ourselves reflected in the judiciary because it gives us the confidence that we are being treated fairly and because we know that bringing a variety of experiences to bear results in more well-rounded judgment. When will America be more balanced? When will there be full participation? When there is no “one look” for women leaders and not one profile for members of the judiciary, it gives our children inspiration, people interacting in the courts a sense of fairness, and a future that promises full participation for everyone. Diversity in all of its dimensions, in every walk of life, including the judiciary, makes that possible.  

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

To support women journalists who are changing the conversation, donate to the WMC here.
To read other recent WMC Features, click here.

To receive WMC Features by email, click here.

Tags:

Comments