Fair Courts E-lert: Women Remain Under-Represented in Judicial Ranks

August 28, 2012
Judicial Diversity

1.      Adding diversity, especially gender diversity, to the bench has been an important topic recently. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlights the lack of gender diversity on the Pennsylvania bench: citing the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s “Commission on Women in the Profession Report Card,” the article points out that “just a handful of counties tilted the balance toward gender equity: 50 percent of Washington County judges are women (three men, three women), as are 48 percent of Philadelphia County judges (47 men to 44 women), and 31 percent of Allegheny County judges (28 men to 13 women). Meanwhile, 28 Pennsylvania counties had no women judges and another 10 counties had only one female judge.” The article attributes some of the discrepancy to disparate networking opportunities and women’s reluctance to put their names forward.  It quotes Elizabeth McNamara, national director of the League of Women Voters, as saying, “What we’ve seen overall is not that men are more likely to win an election, but that men are more likely to approach and run for election. They may have different connections or they may be more willing to consider doing that than women are.” It quotes Dana Brown from the Pennsylvania Center for Women & Politics at Chatham University as saying, “Candidate recruitment happens in social and professional circles. It’s nothing insidious. It’s just that men golf with men and women attend social activities with other women. ... It’s important to make our professional networks more diverse.”

Connecticut is also looking at diversity. A recent article points out that while there has been improvement in the percentage of women on the bench, the rate of improvement has been slow, particularly in the lower courts: “In Connecticut, the number of women judges on the state’s Supreme, Appellate and Superior Courts has increased from 48 to 60 over the past 10 years…While a record number of women have been appointed to the bench in Connecticut since 2002, the gender divide has been bridged best in the highest courts, where public scrutiny of judicial appointments is strongest. For instance, as recently as 2010, women held three of seven posts on the state Supreme Court. But the ratios fall steeply in lower courts; women hold only about one in four probate court positions, and make up an even smaller percentage of magistrates.”

Gabrielle Banks, Women Remain Under-Represented in Judicial Ranks, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 27, 2012; Jay Stapleton, Advocates Seek to Boost Number of Female Judges in Connecticut, The Connecticut Law Tribune, August 24, 2012.

2.      Two judicial candidates from diverse backgrounds were confirmed to state courts recently – Wilhelmina Wright from Minnesota and Su Chon from Utah. The appointment of Justice Wright is particularly significant as she will be the first African American woman to serve on the state’s Supreme Court. Justice Wright is quoted in the article as saying, “‘My mother stood toe to toe with the superintendent of Norfolk,’…and demanded that her children be allowed to attend desegregated schools. ‘By her example, that played a major role in my experience of understanding the rule of law and its importance.’”  The other significant appointment is Judge Su Chon, who is “the first minority nominee [Governor] Herbert has chosen in the 25 nominations he has made to the Utah bench.” Her approval was contentious, as she was the first nominee to be turned down by a senate committee. She was approved by the full senate despite the committee’s recommendation and received a standing ovation once her approval was official.

Patrick Codon, Dayton Names Appeals Judge Wright to Supreme Court, Associated Press, August 20, 2012; Barbara Jones, Wright: Recognition of this Moment is Important, Minnesota Lawyer, August 24, 2012; 3rd District Judge Chosen In Controversial Nomination, KUTV, August 16, 2012; Paul Rolly, Confirmation Panel is Dysfunctional, Salt Lake Tribune, August 25, 2012.

Judicial Ethics

3.      New York is considering the benefits and risks of license plates that distinguish judges (mostly for courthouse parking purposes), which has led to a debate on the power that judges have to get out of traffic violations. The Commission for Judicial Ethics has sent warnings to judges caught with official business placards on their dashboards while not in the vicinity of the courthouse. The Commission wrote a letter this month asking “whether judicial plates ‘distort the normal process of enforcing traffic laws’ and put traffic cops who stop judges in an awkward position.” They have also solicited letters from over 200 judicial and legal organizations asking for input. According to the New York Law Journal,“the agency’s staff is studying how many judicial plates are issued in New York, who holds them, and if the plates carry any special privileges for the bearers. The staff is also researching the policies of other states on issuing plates identifying a vehicle as being owned by a judge.”

Oren Yaniv, Janon Fisher, And Tracy Connor, Commission on Judicial Conduct Slams Judges For Using Their Position to Get Out of Traffic Violations, New York Daily News, August 27, 2012;  Joel Stashenko, Conduct Commission Questions If Judicial Plates Violate Code, New York Law Journal, August 27, 2012.

State Judicial Elections

4.      An article by the Center for Public Integrity focuses on the influence outside money can have in state judicial elections, focusing on the March primary in Illinois. In the race, an outside pro-choice group sent mailers accusing a judicial candidate for the state Supreme Court of being anti-choice, helping turn her lead of 20 points a month before the election into a loss by 28 points. According to the article, “The mailers were not paid for by any of her opponents. Instead, they were funded by Personal PAC, an abortion rights group that has had a hand in Illinois politics since 1978. Personal PAC spent $200,000 on ads to make sure its favored candidate, Justice Mary Jane Theis, remained on the bench.” The article also points out that the judicial candidate could not refute or discuss the content of the mailers, “Unlike non-judicial candidates, anyone who runs for judge must limit the subjects they can talk about. Illinois, like most states, prohibits a judicial candidate from making statements that ‘commit or appear to commit the candidate’ to an issue that may come before them while on the bench.”

Amy Meyers, Judicial Candidates Vulnerable To Outside Spending, The Center for Public Integrity, August 21, 2012.

5.      The bar association in Akron, Ohio is launching an effort to remove corruption from local judicial campaigns by creating the Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee. The Committee hopes “to review complaints about improper behavior and is asking judicial candidates for the first time to sign a pledge promising to run clean campaigns.” Bar President Jack Weisensell is quoted in the article as saying, “[Negative campaigning and attack ads are] demeaning to the office of judge and to the system of justice frankly.” Law professor James Alfini is referred to in the article as saying, “Conduct committees and pledges are becoming more common particularly at the state level because of the amount of money being spent on judicial campaigns and the desire by groups to influence the judicial process.”

Rick Armon and Ed Meyer, Akron Bar Association Targets Judicial Campaigns, Akron Beacon Journal, August 21, 2012.