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Federal Judiciary Structure
Like Supreme Court Justices, Federal Judges are appointed for life. The high-profile cases that reach the Supreme Court arrive there only after first making their way through these lower courts.

Admittedly, I haven't paid nearly as much attention to the lower courts of the Federal Judiciary as I have to the Supreme Court. I've never really given much thought as to how diverse the Federal Bench is, or how a lack of diversity might impact people.

After some introspection, I can't ignore the possibility that the white, male, non-attorney lens through which I've viewed the world is at least partially to blame for my unfortunate, yet inadvertent prior neglect of this subject.

My eyes were opened after reading an interesting ThinkProgress post the other day: Obama has successfully appointed almost the same number of women to federal judgeships in one term as his predecessor George W. Bush did in two terms — specifically, 70 in Obama's first four years, and 71 for Bush in all eight years of his presidency — twice as fast.

After exploring the Federal Judicial Center website referenced in the ThinkProgress article, I discovered that Obama's success in creating a more diverse Bench isn't limited to gender — it's more racially/ethnically diverse as well.

One might ask, “If judges are supposed to be impartial, why should diversity even be a factor in determining the composition of the judiciary?”

True impartiality sounds wonderful in theory — in reality, judges aren't robots, they're human beings.  For better or for worse, their life experiences shape their views, just like the rest of us.

The National Women's Law Council provides an insight as to why this matters:

When women are fairly represented on our federal courts, those courts are more reflective of the diverse population of this nation. When women are fairly represented on the federal bench, women, and men, may have more confidence that the court understands the real-world implications of its rulings. For both, the increased presence of women on the bench improves the quality of justice: women judges can bring an understanding of the impact of the law on the lives of women and girls to the bench, and enrich courts’ understanding of how best to realize the intended purpose and effect of the law that the courts are charged with applying.

[emphasis mine]
Much of this rationale can also be applied to race/ethnicity, as this National Memo article, discussing the implications of Federal Court vacancies in certain areas of the country, suggests:
Federal court judges make decisions that directly impact the lives of Latinos, said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, during an event in Washington on the 2012 election and the Latino workforce.


Filing the vacancies with judges who understand the needs of the working-class community, Latinos, and other minorities is critical, Saenz stressed, since these judges will also hear cases involving workplace discrimination and will rule on whether workers can file class-action lawsuits versus filing individual cases. The jurists can also rule whether workers can use the courts to resolve their dispute or go to arbitration.

[emphasis mine]
Now that we have an idea why robots in black robes aren't the most optimal choice for positions of such consequence to human citizens, let's take a look at how our current president and his predecessor compare in their diversification efforts.
Over the course of his two terms in office, George W. Bush had 326 judges confirmed. In Obama's first term alone, 172 have been confirmed. The numbers represented in the accompanying charts are percentages: the number of confirmed judges belonging to the “group” measured divided by the respective total number confirmed just mentioned.

In this first chart, the left pair of bars are based on the same numbers highlighted in the original ThinkProgress article — the percentage of total confirmed judges who were women. The right pair are the result of my further inquiry, and represent the percentage of total confirmed judges who were of any race/ethnicity other than white, regardless of gender.

The fact that the blue bars represent Obama's confirmed judges so far, while the red bars represent the entirety of the Bush Presidency makes it all the more impressive.

In order to get an idea of where the distribution of race/ethnicity lies, this second chart separates African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic/Latino, and white confirmed judges for both presidents into groups.

The emphasis of each Administration is clear: Democrats are more inclusive than Republicans — hardly a surprising revelation, to be sure. A cursory glance at Democratic and Republican presidents before Bush also indicate similar patterns for each party.

Sadly absent from the numbers comprising these charts are Native Americans — none have even been nominated by either president. In fact, a further search reveals only two have been nominated and confirmed in the history of the country — both by Democratic presidents — one each by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

The consequences of the relentless Republican obstruction we've encountered over the last four years has been readily apparent in the judicial nomination/confirmation process. Republicans haven't been as accommodating with Obama's nominations as Democrats were with those of his predecessor. In fact, the stalling tactics used by Republicans last congress were unprecedented.

Taking this resistance into account, while at the same time acknowledging the next four years provide ample time for things to go either direction, as it stands now, President Obama has made significant headway in creating a more diverse bench.

All of us, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, stand to benefit from a more demographically representative judiciary.


Originally posted to DeadHead on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 02:11 AM PST.

Also republished by Good News and Community Spotlight.

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