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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.