Burnita Shelton Matthews became the first female federal district judge after her 1949 appointment to the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. She was confirmed by the Senate in 1950.
Over 60 years later, the Western District Federal Court of New York may finally have its first woman judge. On March 5, Elizabeth (Liz) Wolford was recommended by Sen. Charles Schumer to serve on the Western District Court, taking the seat vacated by District Court Judge Charles Siragusa, who retired in December 2012 and is currently working on senior status.
Why is this such a big deal? The Western District is the only one of New York’s four federal judicial districts without a woman on the bench. Moreover, according to the Federal Judicial Center, whose website provides biographical and demographic data on all federal judges, women only comprise 235 of the 772 full-time judges in the U.S. District Court and Courts of Appeals — 30.4 percent of the total. In contrast, for the past 25 years, approximately 45 percent of law students have been women, and in the last decade, this number has approached 50 percent.
Of course, things have improved. When Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, there were only 43 full-time women appellate and district court judges, 7.3 percent of the total. Moreover, the Senate recently confirmed two other New York women to serve as federal district justices; Katherine Polk Failla will serve in the Southern District covering three of New York City’s boroughs and the lower Hudson Valley, and Pamela Ki Mai Chen will serve in the Eastern District covering Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk. But the number of women in the federal judiciary must significantly increase to obtain true gender diversity.
When women are fairly represented on our federal courts, those courts are more reflective of this country’s diverse population. A woman’s perspective is a valuable contribution to the fair administration of justice. Indeed, federal judges make decisions that affect the lives of women every day, including reproductive rights and gender discrimination.
Having a woman on the bench is not sufficient alone — she must possess the intelligence, knowledge, temperament and integrity that such a position requires. Liz Wolford certainly has all of those qualities. As stated by Sen. Schumer, “Liz Wolford is a true blue Western New Yorker who will represent the region with distinction and honor,” and cited her “stellar legal background,” “evenhandedness” and “demonstrated leadership skills” as a few of her many qualifications.
Liz Wolford is a past president of GRAWA, and I speak for both GRAWA and WBASNY in saying that we could not be more proud of her.
Kimberly Duguay is the 30th president of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys and an appellate attorney at the Monroe County Public Defender Office, where she practices in the areas of criminal and family law.
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