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Expert Brief

State Supreme Court Diversity — May 2024 Update

In state supreme courts across the country, there is a stark lack of racial, ethnic, gender, and professional diversity on the bench.

In July 2019, the Brennan Center published a comprehensive report on State Supreme Court Diversity, which detailed stark racial, ethnic, and gender disparities on state high courts across the country, drawing on nearly 60 years of data. This year, we updated the analysis with data on the composition of state supreme courts as of May 21, 2024, including updated information on justices’ demographic and professional backgrounds. As we did in our May 2023 update, we also included data on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the highest court in Washington, DC. This data was previously updated in May 2023, May 2022, April 2021, and February 2020.

People of color make up over 40 percent of the U.S. population. Fourteen percent of the U.S. population is Black, 19 percent is Latino, 6 percent is Asian, and 1 percent is Native American. Yet despite an increasingly diverse U.S. population, state supreme courts across the country fail to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. (Unless otherwise noted, all population data in this analysis comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2020 Census Redistricting Data).

These are the key findings since our last analysis:

  • In 18 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. This figure is unchanged since May 2023.
    • 25 states have no Black justices.
    • 39 states and DC have no Latino justices.
    • 42 states have no Asian justices.
    • 46 states and DC have no Native American justices.
  • Across all 50 states and Washington, DC, just 20 percent of state supreme court seats are held by people of color.
  • Men hold 57 percent of high court seats.
  • On the South Carolina Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, there are no women judges. In 4 states, there is only one woman on the supreme court bench.
  • There are 25 states in which there are no women of color state supreme court justices and 13 states and Washington, DC in which there is only one woman of color on the supreme court bench.
  • Thirty-eight percent of sitting justices are former prosecutors, while only 9 percent are former public defenders.

Recent Changes

Since we last collected data in May 2023, 19 new justices have joined state high court benches across 15 states: 2 by election and 17 by appointment. There are currently three vacant state supreme court seats. Looking ahead, many justices are approaching either contested or retention elections by the end of 2024. Notably, nearly a third (32 percent) of Latino justices currently on the bench will face an election in 2024. (It is too early to determine how many justices in states that use contested elections will face an opponent.) Among all justices of color, 23 percent will be up for election by the end of 2024 and at least 3 percent will be retiring either voluntarily or due to reaching their state’s mandatory retirement age. In terms of gender breakdown, at least 2 percent of male justices and 1 percent of female justices will be retiring. 

Of the 19 justices to take office since our May 2023 update, 13 are women (of which 3 are women of color) and 6 are men. Fourteen of the new justices are white, including in nine states where people of color make up at least 20 percent of the population (Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). Of the new justices, 3 are Asian, 2 are Latino, and none are Black or Native American. In six states, Arkansas, Idaho, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Wisconsin, new white justices joined an already all-white bench. 

In the aggregate, this year brought a slight increase in demographic diversity across state supreme courts. The percentage of people of color on state high court benches increased by 1 percentage point to 20 percent, and the percentage of women likewise increased by 1 percentage point to 43 percent. The net effect of recent judicial appointments varied across states. For example: 

  • With the appointment of Allison Riggs, who succeeded Mike Morgan, there was an increase in the number of women on North Carolina’s high court (to 3 out of 7 justices), while the number of people of color (and Black justices) fell to one.  
  • The appointment of Meredith Sasso, who is Latina, increased both racial and gender diversity on the Florida Supreme Court. 

In some states, high courts achieved milestones for diversity. For example, as of September 2023, the Missouri Supreme Court bench has a majority of female justices for the first time in its history. Minnesota swore in its first Muslim justice and North Carolina swore in the youngest justice in the state’s history. 

This year also brought a former public defender to the New Jersey Supreme Court for the first time in its history. However, nationally, the number of former prosecutors continued to come out ahead: 8 of the 19 new justices have prosecutorial experience, while only 2 have public defense experience.

Notable Milestones

Oregon: Justice Aruna Masih was sworn in to the Oregon Supreme Court on September 1, 2023. Growing up in India, she is the first Punjabi, Indian American, and South Asian person to sit on the state’s high court. Before her appointment to the bench, Masih was a partner in the law firm of Bennett Hartman LLP. She was also a former labor and civil rights attorney and comes to the bench with extensive experience representing employees and labor unions. 

Minnesota: Justice Karl Procaccini was sworn in to the Minnesota Supreme Court on November 27, 2023. He is the first Muslim justice to sit on the state’s high court. Prior to his appointment, Procaccini served as general counsel in the governor’s office and was a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Procaccini was appointed to fill the seat left by Justice Natalie Hudson, a Black woman, who became the first person of color and only the third woman to serve as chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Justice Hudson was first appointed to the Supreme Court in 2015. 

New Jersey: On July 6, 2023, Justice Michael Noriega was sworn in to the New Jersey Supreme Court. He is the first public defender to serve on the court and the third Latino justice in the court’s history. Prior to his appointment, Noriega was a partner with the firm Bramnick, Rodriguez, Grabas, Arnold & Mangan, LLC. 

North Carolina: On September 11, 2023, Justice Allison Riggs was sworn in to the North Carolina Supreme Court. She is the youngest woman to ever serve on the state’s high court. Before her appointment, she served as the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s co-executive director for programs and chief counsel for voting rights. 

Missouri: Justice Ginger Gooch was sworn in to the Missouri Supreme Court on November 1, 2023, succeeding the now-retired Justice Patricia Breckenridge, and maintaining the court’s first female majority. This historic majority was initially established by Justice Kelly Broniec’s appointment on September 12, 2023. Prior to her role on the state’s high court, Gooch was a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals. 

Tennessee: When Mary Wagner takes the bench on September 1, 2024, Tennessee will have a majority of female justices on its state high court, and the number of states with female majorities will rise from 17 to 18. Wagner presently serves as a circuit court judge in Tennessee’s 30th Judicial District. 

Overview of State Supreme Court Diversity

Judicial diversity is key to ensuring the legitimacy and efficacy of our court system. A diverse bench fosters increased public confidence in the courts, provides role models across communities, and enriches judicial deliberations.

Recent research underscores the tangible impact of both professional and demographic diversity on the development of the law. While ideology remains a primary driver in shaping judicial outcomes, studies have highlighted how judges’ life experiences shape how they understand the law and facts in front of them. For example, a study found that judges with corporate law or prosecutorial backgrounds are more likely to rule against workers in employment disputes, while another study found that Black judges tend to issue shorter criminal sentences compared to their non-Black peers. Research likewise indicates that judges with experience as public defenders are less likely to incarcerate defendants and generally issue less-severe sentences.

Yet despite the importance of having a diverse judiciary, many state supreme court benches still fail to reflect the diversity of the populations they serve or the diversity of the legal profession.

Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Diversity on the Bench

In 18 states, no state supreme court justices publicly identify as a person of color, including in 12 states where people of color make up over 20 percent of the population. Fifteen states have never had a Black state supreme court justice. 

Currently, 17 states have female majorities on their supreme court benches. However, women remain underrepresented on state supreme courts: 4 states only have one woman state supreme court justice (Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota), and the South Carolina Supreme Court has an all-male bench. There are also no female judges on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the high court for criminal cases in the state. (The Oklahoma Supreme Court, which hears civil cases, has three female members.) The lack of female representation on the bench is particularly striking because as early as 1985, women made up 40 percent of law students. Women have outnumbered men in law schools since 2016. 

Women of color constitute 12 percent of all justices on state supreme court benches and 27 percent of female state supreme court justices. By contrast, women of color represent 20 percent of the total U.S. population, and 40 percent of women in the United States.  

As described in the 2019 State Supreme Court Diversity report, there are many factors that drive the lack of diversity on state supreme court benches, including inequitable barriers to accessing leadership positions across the legal profession, implicit bias, and a long history of racial and gender discrimination. 

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 Black justices in 4 out of the 21 states where Black residents make up over 10 percent of the population (Alabama, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee). In Texas, which has 2 state high courts, there is one Black justice on the Court of Criminal Appeals and no Black justice on the Texas Supreme Court. 
  • There are no Latino justices in 15 out of the 26 states (plus Washington, DC)  where the Hispanic population exceeds 10 percent (Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming). 
  • Similarly, there are no Asian justices in two of the five states with the largest Asian populations per capita (New Jersey and New York). 
  • There are no Native American justices in four of the five states with the largest populations of Native Americans per capita (Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, and South Dakota). 

Diversity Extends Beyond Mere Representation

Demographic diversity, of course, is only one of many values that should drive the selection of justices to state supreme court benches. And the pursuit of judicial diversity also extends beyond mere representation; it is about creating an environment where diverse perspectives are actively heard and respected. Among other things, court structures and processes can foster or discourage diverse voices. For example, a study conducted in 2017 found that female justices on the U.S. Supreme Court were more frequently interrupted during oral arguments than their male counterparts, while a follow up study suggested that procedural changes to how justices pose questions, implemented since the original study, helped eradicate some of these disparities. Research also suggests that women and people of color are more likely to have an impact on their peers when there is a “critical mass” of diverse identities within an institution. These findings underscore the vital importance of continuous efforts to enhance diversity within our judiciary, ensuring that all voices are not only present but also powerful in shaping the law and its impact on society.

Need for Greater Transparency

Another barrier to achieving greater diversity on the bench is the absence of current data. Several states either do not publish information on the demographic composition of their benches at all or provide data that is significantly outdated. Among the 15 states that have recently appointed or elected new justices, only Hawaii and Missouri have made demographic data publicly accessible, which is only as recent as 2022.

The data collected in this report also does not include other important dimensions of diversity such as sexual orientation and disability, reflecting limited available information. As highlighted in recent testimony by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Maya Sen to the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, there is a significant gap in data available on LGBTQ+ judges. While Sen’s testimony focused on diversity in federal courts, there is even less demographic data available in the state court context.

Collecting and improving access to data on demographic diversity is a critical first step toward progress: After all, “[w]hat does not get measured cannot be fixed.” We urge courts to continue to improve access to and transparency of data on judicial diversity as part of their commitment to values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Diversity of Professional Backgrounds

Professional experience is another important dimension of a diverse bench. With respect to the federal courts, President Biden has publicly prioritized professional diversity and has nominated judges from varied professional backgrounds to all levels of the federal judiciary. For instance, Judge Nicole Berner was confirmed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 19, 2024. She became the first labor lawyer and openly LGBTQ+ judge to sit on that court.   

The Brennan Center has reviewed the professional background of every sitting high court justice in all 50 states and Washington, DC, identifying their prior legal work experiences. Our analysis shows that certain professional experiences are far more common than others among state supreme court justices. 

The most common professional experiences for state supreme court justices are private practice (82 percent), another judgeship (65 percent), prosecution (38 percent), or clerkships (35 percent). In all state high courts reviewed, multiple justices have backgrounds in private practice. Former prosecutors are serving on high court benches in 45 states and Washington, DC, while only 21 states and Washington, DC have former public defenders. 

In total, 9 percent of state supreme court justices are former public defenders, with 8 percent of male justices and 11 percent of female justices having served in this capacity. Meanwhile, only 2 percent of justices have experience working in civil legal services, with 2 percent of male justices and 3 percent of female justices having served as civil legal aid attorneys.  

Of the 19 new justices who took the bench this year, 8 have experience as prosecutors, while 2 were former public defenders. Former prosecutors are heavily overrepresented on the bench: 36 percent of male justices and 40 percent of female justices have prosecutorial backgrounds. 

The most common professional experiences vary for justices of different racial identities. For example, 84 percent of white justices have experience in private practice, compared to 67 percent of Black justices, 82 percent of Latino justices, 92 percent of Asian justices, and only one out of the four Native American justices. According to a National Association on Law Placement report, people of color made up only 20 percent of all lawyers at American law firms in 2023. 

Justices of color are also more likely to have been prosecutors than white justices. Overall, 36 percent of white state supreme court justices have served as prosecutors, compared to 46 percent of state supreme court justices of color. 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. 

Though there have been notable advancements to date, state supreme court benches continue to be significantly over-represented by only a sliver of society. Continued, dedicated efforts are necessary to foster a judiciary that reflects the diverse society it serves and addresses the enduring underrepresentation of people of color, women, and varied professional backgrounds on the bench.  

Moving forward, stakeholders across all sectors must embrace and enact reforms that open pathways for a broader range of qualified candidates. This could include tackling pipeline issues through efforts to increase diversity at law schools and in judicial clerkships, instituting mandatory and regularized implicit bias training for court employees and attorneys, reforming the processes used by judicial nominating commissions to recruit and vet candidates, and enhancing support networks for judicial candidates from historically marginalized communities. These measures aim to expand access to the bench for all qualified candidates and ensure all voices on the bench can be respected and heard.