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Building a Diverse Bench: A Guide for Judicial Nominating Commissioners

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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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.