Building a Diverse Bench: A Guide for Judicial Nominating Commissioners

June 1, 2016
Judges’ personal and professional experiences affect how they approach the cases that come before them. The diversity of their perspectives and lived experiences fosters a decision-making that better reflects the whole population, resulting in better, richer jurisprudence. This new resource provides nominating commissioners with concrete guidance on the steps they can take to promote a more diverse bench. The best practices listed reflect lessons, recommendations, and research provided by nominating commissioners, judges, advocates, and scholars. 

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Introduction

The judiciary plays a critical role in our democracy. Judges resolve disputes, protect rights, and interpret the law. The decisions they make affect all aspects of society, from banking to marriage to policing. Selecting fair and impartial judges is therefore vital. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia select at least some judges with the help of a judicial nominating commission. Many federal judges are also chosen with the assistance of a commission, including magistrate and bankruptcy judges, as well as some federal district and appellate judges.
 
One key element to a successful judiciary is diversity, both demographic and professional. Judges’ personal and professional experiences affect how they approach the cases that come before them. Bringing diverse perspectives to bear fosters decision-making that reflects the lived experiences of the whole population, resulting in better, richer jurisprudence. A diverse bench also promotes public confidence that the judicial system is fair and objective. When the judiciary includes all voices and perspectives, members of the public are more likely to trust that theirs will be heard as well. Diversity on the bench has the added benefit of establishing role models for all groups by showing that individuals from diverse backgrounds can obtain judicial positions. It is for these reasons that a number of states with judicial nominating commissions have constitutional or statutory provisions directing nominating commissioners to consider diversity in making their recommendations.
 
Despite the benefits of judicial diversity, it remains lacking across the country. No state has a bench that comes close to reflecting the demographics of its population or the diversity of the legal profession. But nominating commissioners can play a vital role in changing this trend. Commissioners are the gatekeepers for appointed judges; they recruit candidates, evaluate their qualifications for the bench, and ultimately decide which names to put forward to the appointing authority. By actively recruiting candidates from across the legal profession and taking steps to ensure the fair evaluation of all candidates, commissioners can help build an even stronger judiciary. While the focus of this manual is on the state bench, many of the best practices included herein are also applicable to the selection of federal judges.
 
This resource provides nominating commissioners with concrete guidance on the steps they can take to promote a diverse bench. The best practices listed below reflect lessons, recommendations, and research provided by nominating commissioners, judges, advocates, and scholars. In recognition of the already heavy workload of nominating commissioners, this manual focuses on simple changes that can have an outsized impact on the strength of both the applicant pool and the candidates put forward to the appointing authority.

Building a Diverse Bench: A Guide for Judicial Nominating Commissioners