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State Supreme Court Diversity — February 2020 Update

A diverse bench is crucial to achieving a fair system of justice and promoting public trust in our courts. Across the country, state supreme courts continue to fail to reflect an increasingly diverse U.S. population.

Published: February 20, 2020

In July 2019, the Bren­nan Center released State Supreme Court Diversity, which detailed vast racial, ethnic, and gender dispar­it­ies on state high courts across the coun­try. Draw­ing on nearly 60 years of data, the study examined the factors that have contrib­uted to a lack of diversity on the bench, includ­ing substan­tial racial dispar­it­ies in judi­cial elec­tions. This analysis updates the report with new data on the current compos­i­tion of state supreme courts as of Febru­ary 4, 2020.

Since we last collec­ted data, which went through May 2019, there have been 19 open­ings on state supreme courts across the coun­try. Four­teen of these vacan­cies have since been filled, 2 via elec­tions and 12 via appoint­ments. Half of these seats — seven in total — were filled by white men, includ­ing in four states where people of color make up over 30 percent of the popu­la­tion. Of the remain­ing seats, four were filled by white women, one by a Black woman, and two by a male and female Native Amer­ican justice, respect­ively.

In the aggreg­ate, there was little move­ment in the over­all demo­graphic compos­i­tion of state high courts.

  • Currently, 23 states have an all-white state supreme court bench, includ­ing 12 states where people of color are at least 20 percent of the popu­la­tion.
  • While people of color make up nearly 40 percent of the popu­la­tion, only 15.5 percent of state supreme court seats are held by people of color, up 0.5 percent­age points from May 2019.
  • Only six states — Cali­for­nia, Connecti­cut, Minnesota, North Caro­lina, Oregon, and Wash­ing­ton — have a supreme court bench where the percent­age of people of color is higher than their repres­ent­a­tion in the state’s popu­la­tion as a whole (exclud­ing states with open vacan­cies).
  • With respect to gender diversity, women now hold 37 percent of state supreme court seats, up 1 percent­age point from last year.
  • Fifteen states currently have one or fewer female justices on their high courts. Flor­ida stands out as the only state that currently has no female justices, with two vacan­cies on its seven-member high court.

At the same time, three states saw historic appoint­ments.

Delaware. In a state where 23 percent of the popu­la­tion is Black, in Janu­ary 2020, Tamika Mont­gomery-Reeves became the first Black supreme court justice in the state’s history. She is also the first person of color and only the second woman to reach Delaware’s highest court. From 2015 to 2019, Mont­gomery-Reeves served as the only Black judge on Delaware’s Court of Chan­cery, which is the second highest court in the state. With her appoint­ment, there are now 12 states in the coun­try that have never had a person of color serve on their state supreme courts and 17 states that have never had a Black justice.

Wash­ing­ton. Raquel Montoya-Lewis became the first Native Amer­ican person to ascend to Wash­ing­ton’s highest court. She previ­ously served as chief judge for three tribal courts in Indi­gen­ous communit­ies in Wash­ing­ton.

Notably, while Wash­ing­ton uses judi­cial elec­tions, all three of the justices of color currently sitting on its high court were initially appoin­ted by the governor to fill an interim vacancy. By contrast, four of the six white justices first reached the bench through state-wide elec­tion. This is consist­ent with State Supreme Court Diversity‘s find­ing that histor­ic­ally, judi­cial elec­tions have rarely been a path to the supreme court bench for people of color.

Oklahoma. In addi­tion, in Novem­ber 2019, Dustin P. Rowe, who is Native Amer­ican, was appoin­ted to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. He previ­ously served on the Chick­asaw Nation District Court, and earlier in his career he was the young­est mayor in the state’s history.

Prior to these two recent appoint­ments in Oklahoma and Wash­ing­ton, there was only one sitting Native Amer­ican state supreme court justice in the entire coun­try, Justice Anne McKeig of the Minnesota Supreme Court. These new appoint­ments come at the same time that Native Amer­ic­ans continue to be under­rep­res­en­ted in the legal profes­sion as a whole. A 2015 study by the National Native Amer­ican Bar Asso­ci­ation high­lighted contrib­ut­ing factors, includ­ing ways that discrim­in­a­tion and a dearth of support systems have posed hurdles to profes­sional advance­ment for Native Amer­ic­ans in the law.

A diverse bench is crucial to achiev­ing a fair system of justice and promot­ing public trust in our courts. Across the coun­try, state supreme courts continue to fail to reflect an increas­ingly diverse U.S. popu­la­tion.