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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_9rrqwto 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_sinoe9m 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_za9i­wlr 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_9bfsu3e 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