A few months ago, the American Constitution Society released a report of a study examining demographic diversity of state courts of general jurisdiction. Specifically, two academic researchers – Tracey George, professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University, and Albert Yoon, professor of law and economics at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law – constructed a database of biographical information of judges in every state and Washington, D.C., as of December 2014. Using the database, they reviewed the gender, racial, and ethnic composition of state courts.
The study found that “courts are not representative of the people whom they serve.” (George, Tracey and Yoon, Albert, “The Gavel Gap: Who Sits In Judgment On State Courts?” American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, 2016.)
The study’s principal findings were:
- “Women have entered law schools and the legal profession in larger numbers for the last forty years, but are underrepresented on state courts. Women comprise roughly one-half of the U.S. population and one-half of American law students. But, less than one-third of state judges are women. . . . Not a single state has as many women judges as it does men.”
- “People of color make up roughly four in ten people in the country but fewer than two in ten judges; and in sixteen states, judges of color account for fewer than one in ten state judges. . . . In the five states with the best representation, minorities are represented at roughly the same rate on state courts as they are in the general population (and in a few states, they are even better represented). But, in the five states with the worst representation, minorities appear to be nearly absent from the judiciary.”
This gap between the bench and the general population, which is referred to in the report as the “Gavel Gap,” is significant. State courts handle more than 90 percent of the judicial business in America. Yet, the bench, as a whole, does not represent the general population or, in the case of women in particular, the gender makeup of those attending law school and becoming licensed attorneys.
Why a gap?
The study looks only at what the data tells us. It does not address why the gap exists.
On Nov. 5, a program inspired by this study and entitled “Why New York’s Judiciary Doesn’t Reflect the Population” will be held at St. John Fisher College. The program will provide an opportunity for discussions on societal views about women, the politics of becoming a judge and reaching your maximum potential as a judge, and will include the following presenters who serve on the bench in courts in Western New York: Hon Elizabeth A. Wolford, United States District Judge, Western District of New York; Hon. Nancy E. Smith, Associate Justice, Appellate Division, Fourth Department; Hon. Erin M. Peradotto, Associate Justice, Appellate Division, Fourth Department; and Hon. Shirley Troutman, Associate Justice, Appellate Division, Fourth Department; Hon. Sharon Townsend, Justice of the Supreme Court, 8th Judicial District; Hon. E. Jeannette Ogden, Justice of the Supreme Court, 8th Judicial District; Hon. Dennis E. Ward, Justice of the Supreme Court, 8th Judicial District; Hon. Emilio Colaiacovo, Justice of the Supreme Court, 8th Judicial District; Hon. Renee Forgensi Minarik, New York State Court of Claims Judge, 7th Judicial District; and Hon. Debra L. Givens, Buffalo City Court Judge.
The program is sponsored by the New York Chapter of the National Association of Women Judges, the Western New York Chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, the Central New York Women’s Bar Association, the Judicial Section of the New York State Bar Association, and GRAWA.
We hope that you will join our discussion of this important issue. If you are interested in attending, please contact email@example.com for instructions on registering.
The American Constitutional Society’s full study and its ranking of the individual states are available at gavelgap.org.
Pamela Reynolds is an associate attorney in the Rochester office of Littler Mendelson and president of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys.