Taking Stock of Diversity in the Federal Judiciary; Significant Progress Has Been Made, But Much Remains to Be Done
By Marcia D. Greenberger, Co-President, National Women's Law Center
As we approach the end of President Obama’s first term in office, it’s an appropriate time to look back and take stock of the impact the President has had on the federal bench, to date. Although, thanks to a determined minority in the Senate, there is a record number of judicial seats that remain empty, the most recent additions to the federal bench are remarkable not only for their excellence and qualifications, but also for how they are changing the face of the judiciary.
President Obama’s Administration has nominated more women and people of color for judgeships than any previous Administration in history. Overall, of the President’s confirmations, approximately 43% have been women, more than twice the rate under the previous Administration. In fact, more women have been confirmed to the federal bench in President Obama’s first term than during President George W. Bush’s entire presidency. As a result, even with the vacancies, the percentage of active women judges on the federal bench has increased from slightly above 25% to over 30% since 2009.
The Administration also broke gender barriers by confirming six women as the first woman judges ever to serve on their district court, and five more as the first woman circuit judge in their state. And it must be noted, of course, that for the first time in history, three women serve on the Supreme Court at one time. President Obama’s nomination of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan created that exciting breakthrough.
Moreover, President Obama already has appointed more minority women judges than President Bush or President Clinton. During President Obama’s first term, moreover, seven African American women became the first African American female judges in their states, and three Hispanic women were the first in theirs. And of course, Justice Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic woman to sit on the Supreme Court. The number of Asian American female judges has more than quadrupled during President Obama’s Administration, furthermore, including the first Asian American woman to sit on a circuit court (Jacqueline Nguyen, confirmed to the Ninth Circuit).
Nevertheless, much work remains to be done. It’s critical that the “firsts” are followed by the seconds, and thirds, and fourths, in order to create permanent change on our federal courts. And with about 75 current vacancies and more expected as judges continue to retire, it’s important to build on the progress that has been made in these first four years. Although the federal bench resembles ever more the diverse face of our nation, it is remarkable that, in 2012, there are still courts never to have had a female judge, including the Eastern District of Wisconsin, the Western District of New York, the District of Montana, the District of New Hampshire, the Southern District of Illinois, and the Eastern District of Tennessee. Furthermore, more women are needed on our courts of appeal: for example, the Eighth Circuit only has one female judge—the only woman in history to have been appointed to that court. In addition, there is only one woman serving as one of the ten active members of the Tenth Circuit. Women are also underrepresented on the Third Circuit (where they make up approximately 15% of judges) and the Fourth Circuit (where they make up about 27%).
The quality of justice in this nation depends on President Obama continuing to make the nomination of individuals who would increase the diversity of the federal bench in a number of important ways – including gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and also legal experience – a priority for his second term, laying the foundations of a lasting legacy for the judiciary. We urge the Senate minority to abandon the ruthlessly partisan obstruction of judicial nominations, so that these excellent nominees may get to work in courts around the country that desperately await their talents.
Old adages are repeated over time, usually because they are true. And that is certainly the case for the adage that justice delayed is justice denied. Americans across the country benefit greatly from a more diverse bench with more women, including women of color, because diversity improves the quality of justice for all. The President, and the Senate, need to get to work on filling judicial vacancies with superb – and diverse – candidates right away.