Judges and judicial experts gathered last week for a continuing education program that focused on how to close the gender gap in New York’s courtroom.
The Nov. 5 program at St. John Fisher College heard panelists share their insights on how to navigate the various judicial selection processes to tips on understanding what it takes to become a judge.
And, some traditional obstacles remain, one expert noted.
“Statistics do prove that the role of women is changing in many settings, but society as a whole still judges men and women differently in the workplace,” said University of Buffalo Social Work Professor Tara Hughes, who started the program with a conversation about the myth that “you can have it all.”
“There is still a double standard … and shame cast upon working mothers much more than working fathers.”
Until more women are in leadership positions, those societal views will continue to undermine an economic system which still pays women less than men for the same work.
“Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone,” Hughes noted to close her presentation.
The hard numbers
As of 2014, nearly 60 percent of state trial judges and state appellate judges are white men, according to a report compiled by Tracey E. George and Albert H. Yoon and published by the American Constitution Society.
The report, “The Gavel Gap: Who Sits in Judgment on State Courts?” was included in the handouts at the four-credit continuing education program sponsored by the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York and three local WBASNY chapters from Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo.
White men make up only 30 percent of the U.S. race and gender equation, yet they hold the judicial power in 58 percent of the court rooms across the country, the researchers said.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo spoke about navigating the political process since most of New York state trial judges as elected in partisan races. NYS Supreme Court Justice Dennis Ward explained the judicial convention process and judicial delegates.
“’The Judicial Campaign Ethics Handbook’ is truly the Bible of the political process of becoming a judge,” said Judge Colaiacovo. “There are many land mines to avoid and strict timelines for candidacy.”
He pointed out that, especially for Supreme Court vacancies, being involved in the community and county or town politics is helpful.
Included in the handouts were copies of the New York Election Law along with a copy of NYS Board of Elections v. Lopez Torres, 128 S. Ct. 791 (2008) which upheld the system of judicial nominating conventions.
“Running for state Supreme Court in New York is complicated,” Ward stressed.
Judicial candidates for town, city, and county court positions may not require a lot of funding, but at the Supreme Court level, each judicial district is about the size of three congressional districts so funding often needs to cover television advertising to reach all counties in the district.
Every judicial candidate needs a campaign manager and a treasurer to focus on fundraising because a judicial candidate cannot ask for contributions.
Jane Griffin worked as a research scientist for 42 years, but she was on the agenda Nov. 5 because she is a founding member of Women’s TAP Fund of Western New York, a volunteer networking organization that has helped many women candidates in the region with funding.
TAP stands for Taking Action in Politics, and it has helped 140 female candidates in numerous political contests at the local and state level.
Fourth Department Associate Justice Shirley Troutman, who put together the list of speakers for the program, talked about her own introduction to the TAP Fund when she was a judicial candidate and the importance of networking.
Western District of New York’s sole female judge, Hon. Elizabeth A. Wolford, was part of a panel that spoke about judicial positions that are appointed.
For federal district court, generally one’s home state senator is key to getting a recommendation to the Senate and White House. Sen. Charles Schumer made the recommendation for Wolford, setting her vetting process in motion. For Wolford, the interview to confirmation process took 10 months.
“Only 33 percent of district court judges are women,” Wolford noted. “There are still six federal district courts in the country that have never had a woman appointed.”
She also explained that U.S. magistrates are selected by the sitting judges in the particular federal district.
“Enjoy what you do, and work hard at it,” was Wolford’s advice for those seeking a federal position.
The New York Court of Claims also uses an appointment system, generally launched by a 75-page application. Court of Claims Judge Renee Minarik shared her experience, which resulted in her appointment and reappointments by Gov. George E. Pataki.
Included in this panel was state Supreme Court Justice Sharon Townsend, who was appointed as the administrative judge of the Eighth Judicial District in 2003 through 2009.
In addition to being competent in the law and competitive enough to run for office, Minarik noted the importance of being able to articulate “why” you want to become a judge, and to develop a thick skin.
“As a woman, you also have to pay attention to getting your hair and nails done regularly, and having three or four ‘go to’ outfits that work well,” she added.
Supreme Court Judge Jeannette Ogden also noted, “You need to prepare yourself personally – physically and emotionally. You need to remember you are running FOR something, not AGAINST someone.”
“You also lose some of your basic entitlements as both a candidate and an elected jurist,” she continued. “There are organizations you can’t belong to or participate in, and your time is not your own. Oh, and you need to get accustomed to disappointment.”
“You need to know the lay of the land and always have someone with you who can help extricate you from a conversation without you being rude,” the panelist added.
Justices Nancy E. Smith and Erin M. Peradotto talked about their experience being appointed to the Appellate Division.
Of course, first you have to be a Supreme Court Justice – so winning an election is a prerequisite.
Smith was first appointed to the Second Department in 1999, where she served until 2004, when she was selected for the Fourth Department.
Peradotto was appointed to the Fourth Department by Gov. Pataki in 2006. She has twice been on the list of candidates nominated for the New York State Commission on Judicial Nomination for the position of Associate Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals.
“For that first interview in New York City, I knew almost no one in the room,” Peradotto admitted. “There were questionnaires, and submissions of judicial writings, background investigations, and a rather secretive interview process.”