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Judicial Diversity Matters—At Home and Abroad

Judges are the human face of the law, and international, as well as domestic, observers look to the courts’ composition as a measure of how well the law represents and is accessible to a diverse population.

  • Katherine Munyan
October 3, 2013

On this past Friday, Sri Srinivasan was sworn in as the first Indian-Amer­ican on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Stand­ing along with Srinivas­an’s profes­sional connec­tions from an accom­plished career was Gursharon Kaur, the Indian prime minister’s wife, who had rushed directly from the airport to the cere­mony. Srinivas­an’s nomin­a­tion initially star­ted conver­sa­tions about judi­cial diversity’s import­ance at home—“As members of Congress, we value the import­ance of having diversity on the court,” 21 US Congress­men wrote earlier this year in support. However, as Kaur’s pres­ence suggests, the foreign response to Srinivas­an’s confirm­a­tion offers a reminder that a diverse judi­ciary’s impact can also reach far outside its juris­dic­tion.

Born in the Indian city of Chand­igarh and raised in Kansas, Srinivasan had been serving as the Prin­cipal Deputy Soli­citor General of the United States before being approved 97–0 to be the first judge for the Circuit since 2006. Cover­age aboun­ded in the Indian press, with The Times of India herald­ing the occa­sion as “a matter of great pride and satis­fac­tion for India and the Indian-Amer­ican community, and yet another proof of the ster­ling contri­bu­tions of the community to US soci­ety and indeed, to India-US rela­tions.” 

Citizens of foreign coun­tries may be outsiders look­ing in on the Amer­ican court system, but that does not mean they are not paying close atten­tion to what they see. The Times of India also reflec­ted on the signi­fic­ance of several Indian-Amer­ican court nomin­a­tions as a sign of Indian immig­rants “break­ing through the glass ceil­ing” of the “the U.S. legal-judi­cial-polit­ical citadel.” Judges are the human face of the law, and inter­na­tional, as well as domestic, observ­ers look to the courts’ compos­i­tion as a meas­ure of how well the law repres­ents and is access­ible to a diverse popu­la­tion. 

As these conver­sa­tions at home and abroad suggest, judi­cial diversity is essen­tial if courts are to reflect both the breadth and the nuances of perspect­ive of differ­ent back­grounds and communit­ies. In a memo last month to the Geor­gia governor advoc­at­ing for diverse nomin­ees, retir­ing Geor­gia Supreme Court Judge John Allen explained, “Unques­tion­ably, judges are influ­enced in their notion of justice by their unique life exper­i­ences. It would be a trav­esty to the popu­la­tion served if their justice is reflec­ted only in terms of the 'white male’ exper­i­ence.”  Exper­i­ence matters, both in inform­ing the court’s opin­ions and in ensur­ing that the popu­la­tion feels “part of the process and not an outsider look­ing in”—as Justice Sonia Soto­mayor described an unrep­res­en­ted community’s possible rela­tion­ship to the courts.

Two years ago, the Bren­nan Center looked at how to promote diversity effect­ively in state courts. Many of the insights from this study are equally applic­able to promot­ing diversity in federal courts. One of the most found­a­tional barri­ers to embra­cing diverse nomin­ees often occurs without anyone real­iz­ing it ever happened, as even the consciously egal­it­arian-minded often have uncon­scious impli­cit biases that under­mine fair­ness in eval­u­at­ing applic­ants. While erad­ic­at­ing such biases is diffi­cult, simply recog­niz­ing the prob­able pres­ence of impli­cit biases is a step towards redu­cing their harm. Because of the history of low repres­ent­a­tion of diverse judges on the bench, extra atten­tion also needs to be devoted to actively recruit­ing diverse candid­ates, eval­u­at­ing them beyond a curs­ory resume glance, and clari­fy­ing and demys­ti­fy­ing the applic­a­tion process to encour­age applic­ants from outside of the usual suspects. Finally, these efforts to increase judi­cial diversity should be openly and clearly discussed, both to build consensus and elim­in­ate confu­sion over the best ways to promote judi­cial diversity and to emphas­ize public­ally its import­ance. After all, the world is watch­ing.