Skip Navigation
Resource

State Supreme Court Diversity — May 2022 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 the diversity of the communities they serve.

Last Updated: May 25, 2022
Published: May 20, 2022

In July 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice published State Supreme Court Diversitywhich detailed stark racial, ethnic, and gender disparities on state high courts across the country, drawing on more than 60 years of data. This analysis includes new data on the composition of state supreme courts as of May 18, 2022, with updated information on justices’ demographic and professional backgrounds. This report was updated in May 2022April 2021, and Febru­ary 2020.

Key findings since our last update include:

  • In 20 states, no justices identify as a person of color, including in 12 states where people of color make up at least 20 percent of the population.
    • There are no Black justices in 28 states.
    • There are no Latino justices in 39 states.
    • There are no Asian American justices in 43 states.
    • There are no Native American justices in 47 states.
  • Across all state high courts, just 18 percent of justices are Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, or multiracial. By contrast, people of color make up over 40 percent of the U.S. population.
  • Men hold 59 percent of state supreme court seats.
  • In 9 states, there is only one woman on the supreme court bench.
  • 39 percent of sitting justices are former prosecutors, while only 7 percent are former public defenders. 

Recent Changes

Since we last collected data in April 2021, there have been personnel changes involving 29 seats on state supreme court benches: 25 new justices have taken office, including one justice temporarily appointed to fill a vacancy, and four seats are currently vacant. Of the new justices to take office, one was elected and twenty-four were appointed. 

In the aggregate, new justices reflected an increase in demographic diversity on state supreme court benches. Fifteen out of the twenty-five new justices are women, ten are people of color, and seven are women of color. Two states, Maine and Vermont, swore in the first state supreme court justice of color in their state’s history.

At the same time, other states saw little change in the diversity of their high courts or saw diversity decline by some measures. Fifteen of the new justices are white, including in seven states where people of color make up at least 20 percent of the population (Alaska, Arizona, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas). In Alaska and Tennessee, white justices joined an already all-white bench. Oklahoma’s Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, lost its only female justice when Judge William Musseman replaced Judge Dana Kuehn.

Overall, court demographics have remained relatively consistent. Nationally, the percentage of justices of color has slightly increased to 18 percent from 17 percent in April 2021, and the percentage of female justices nationwide has also increased from 39 to 41 percent. This year, 40 percent (10 out of 25) of new justices are people of color, an increase from last year, when 27 percent (11 out of 41) of new justices were people of color.

With respect to professional diversity, 14 (56 percent) of the new justices have experience as prosecutors. Only two new justices have experience as public defenders, and two have experience working in civil legal services. The proportion of new justices with prosecutorial backgrounds is substantially higher than the 39 percent of all state supreme court justices who have experience as prosecutors.

Notable Milestones 

Missouri. Justice Robin Ransom took office as a justice on the Missouri Supreme Court on June 8, 2021. She is the first Black woman and the fifth woman to ever serve as a justice on the Missouri Supreme Court. Previously, Justice Ransom was a judge for the Missouri Court of Appeals’s Eastern District and a circuit judge and family court commissioner for Missouri’s 22nd Circuit Court. Justice Ransom is also the only former public defender currently sitting on the Missouri Supreme Court bench.

California. On March 28, 2022, Justice Patricia Guerrero was sworn in as the first Latina justice to ever serve on the California Supreme Court. She was nominated by Gov. Gavin Newsom and unanimously confirmed by the California Commission on Judicial Appointments. From 2017–22, Justice Guerrero served as an associate justice at the Fourth District Court of Appeal. Latinos make up the largest ethnic group in California, composing 39.4 percent of the state’s population, according to the 2020 Census.

Maryland. Justice Angela Eaves was sworn in as a justice on the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, on April 12, 2022. Eaves is Panamanian and Black and is the state’s first Hispanic justice. She is also the only justice on the court with experience as a civil legal services attorney. Eaves was appointed to fill a vacancy created by Justice Robert McDonald, who reached the state’s mandatory retirement age in February 2022. When Gov. Larry Hogan first advertised the post earlier this year, all seven applications submitted came from white candidates. He chose to readvertise the vacancy “in order to attract as broad a field of candidates as possible consistent with his commitment to diversity and outreach.” Eaves applied for the position during this second round.

Vermont. Justice Nancy Waples became the first person of color to ever serve as a Vermont Supreme Court justice when she was sworn in on April 15, 2022. Justice Waples, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was born in Toronto and became a U.S. citizen in 1977. Waples served as a judge on the Vermont Superior Court from 2015–22. Gov. Phil Scott nominated Justice Waples to replace Beth Robinson, who vacated her seat on the Vermont Supreme Court when she was nominated and confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, becoming the first out LGBTQ woman to serve on a federal circuit court.

Maine. Justice Rick Lawrence was sworn in as a justice on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on May 4, 2022. Justice Lawrence is the first Black justice to ever serve on Maine’s highest court. He has been a district court judge for over 20 years and has been deputy chief judge of Maine’s District Courts since April 2020.

Illinois. On May 10, 2022, the Illinois Supreme Court nominated Appellate Justice Lisa Holder White to fill a vacancy on the high court. She will join the bench in July after Justice Rita Garman retires. Justice Holder White will be the first Black woman to ever serve on the state’s supreme court. She currently serves as an appellate justice on the Illinois Appellate Court, Fourth District and has experience as a lawyer in private practice, a public defender, and assistant state’s attorney for Macon County.

Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Diversity footnote1_4sqlyni 1 This work builds on a data set generously shared with the Brennan Center by Professor Greg Goelzhauser at Utah State University, which includes demographic information for state supreme court justices who reached the bench between 1960 and 2014. The Brennan Center updated this data through 2022 and added more detailed demographic information and professional information. To code justices’ race, ethnicity, and gender, the Brennan Center reviewed secondary sources with hallmarks of credibility, including biographical statements, obituaries, newspaper articles, and listed membership in affinity organizations. Where no publicly available information about race or ethnicity was available, we reached out directly to chambers. These methods left us unable to verify race and ethnicity for 6 out of 340 sitting justices. They were subsequently coded as not publicly identifying as people of color.

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

In 20 states, no state supreme court justices publicly identify as a person of color, including in 12 states where people of color make up at least 20 percent of the population. Notably, 15 states have never had a Black supreme court justice.

Women are also underrepresented on state supreme courts: in nine states, there is only one woman serving as a high court justice. As previously noted, there are no women on the bench of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases. 

As discussed in State Supreme Court Diversity, today’s lack of judicial diversity is driven by many factors, including a long history of racial and gender discrimination in the United States and inequities in access to law schools and the legal bar. Research has demonstrated that a diverse judiciary is important for increasing public trust and confidence in the courts, particularly among historically underrepresented communities. In addition, research shows that demographic and professional diversity among judges enriches judicial deliberations and impacts the development of the law.

In several states, racial and ethnic communities that make up significant portions of the state population are not reflected on state supreme court benches.

  • There are no Latino justices in 15 states where Latino residents make up at least 10 percent of the population (Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming).
  • There are no Black justices in six states where Black residents make up at least 10 percent of the population (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee).
  • Three of the four states with the largest Native American populations (Arizona, California, and New Mexico) do not have any Native American justices. *
  • Similarly, three of the four states with the largest Asian American populations do not have any Asian American justices (New Jersey, New York, and Texas).

Diversity of Professional Backgrounds 

Professional experience is another important dimension of a diverse bench and can inform judges’ perspectives when deciding cases. In the federal courts, President Joe Biden has prioritized increasing professional diversity, recognizing that lawyers with corporate and prosecutor backgrounds have long been overrepresented on the bench, while former public defenders, civil rights lawyers, civil legal aid attorneys, and others who have served poor and marginalized clients have been underrepresented. 

The Brennan Center has reviewed the professional background of every sitting state supreme court justice, categorizing their prior legal experiences. footnote2_9yngais 2 Our methodology was as follows: We reviewed the official biographies of all state supreme court justices and coded their professional affiliations in the following categories: former judge, academia (including think tanks and part-time academic positions such as adjunct professorships), private practice/law firm, in-house counsel, law clerk, court staff/attorney, lobbyist, public defender, civil legal services, prosecutor, law enforcement (besides prosecutor), state/local government attorney (other than public defender/prosecutor/lawyer for one of the political branches), federal government attorney (other than public defender/prosecutor/lawyer for one of the political branches), lawyer in governor’s office, lawyer for legislature, elected/statewide official, attorney general, governor, state legislator, other elected official, nonprofit (including nonprofits from across the political spectrum), and other. We coded judges as having belonged to any of these professions if they worked in that field after completing their legal education (legal internships were not included). We used the following tier ranking of sources: official biographies; court press releases; campaign pages (if elected); Ballotpedia, LinkedIn, and Wikipedia; and news reports. If no information was available, we contacted justices’ chambers. The data reveals that certain professional experiences are far more common than others on state supreme court benches.

The most common professional experiences for state supreme court justices were in private practice (81 percent), another judgeship (69 percent), and prosecution (39 percent). In all 50 states, at least one sitting justice has a background in private practice. Forty-six states have at least one state supreme court justice with experience as a prosecutor, footnote3_1d3na6w 3 If we were unable to determine whether a justice who served in an attorney general’s office or municipal office worked in a civil or criminal role, that justice was not counted as a prosecutor. The number of former prosecutors therefore represents a lower bound estimate. while only twenty-one states have a former public defender on the state supreme court. footnote4_nspje8p 4 We counted as a public defender any individual who had been employed to provide indigent criminal defense, including contract defenders.

In total, only 7 percent of state supreme court justices have experience as public defenders. A mere 2 percent have experience as civil legal services attorneys, who represent low-income individuals in civil proceedings such as evictions. There are more sitting state supreme court justices named John (14 justices) than there are with any background in civil legal services (8 justices). Just 1 percent of male justices and 4 percent of female justices have worked as civil legal aid attorneys.

Of the 25 new justices who have taken the bench since April 2021, 14 have served as prosecutors, two have been public defenders, and two have worked in civil legal services. Since last year, the percentage of sitting justices with a prosecutor background has increased from 37 percent to 39 percent, yet the percentages of sitting justices with backgrounds in civil legal services and public defense have remained constant.

The proportions of justices with certain professional experiences vary when examining justices of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. For example, 84 percent of white justices have a background in private practice, compared to 53 percent of Black justices, 80 percent of Latino justices, 78 percent of Asian American justices, and only one of the four total Native American justices. According to a 2021 report by the National Association for Law Placement, people of color constitute 19 percent of all lawyers at law firms.

Justices of color are substantially more likely to have been prosecutors than white justices. Overall, 36 percent of white state supreme court justices, compared to 55 percent of non-white state supreme court justices, have served as prosecutors. Specifically, 50 percent of Black justices, 60 percent of Latino justices, 44 percent of Asian American justices, and two out of the four total Native American justices have been prosecutors. This data differs from the overall demographics of prosecutors nationally: as of 2019, 95 percent of elected prosecutors in the United States were white, according to a study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign.

With respect to justices who previously held a non-judicial elected office, 28 out of 30 such justices are white. In addition, 13 percent of male justices and only 4 percent of female justices have previously held non-judicial elected office.

Judicial diversity inspires public confidence in the courts and is a critical part of a fair and impartial judicial system. Despite some positive strides, state supreme court benches continue to fall short on this crucial measure.

* CORRECTION: The original version of this resource stated that three of the four states with the largest Native American populations — Arizona, California, and Texas  had no Native American justices on their supreme courts. The correct states, however, are Arizona, California, and New Mexico.

* CORRECTION: The original version of this resource stated that only 20 states have a former public defender on their state supreme court and indicated that there were no former public defenders on the Nevada Supreme Court. The resource has been updated to reflect that 21 states, including Nevada, have former public defenders on their state supreme courts.

End Notes