Over the past three decades, an increasing number of women have joined the legal profession. Since 1992, women’s representation in law school classes has approached 50%. Despite record numbers of female judicial nominees and confirmations, the percentage of female federal judges, however, is far lower. It is of critical importance to increase the representation of women on the federal bench.
When women are fairly represented on our federal courts, those courts are more reflective of the diverse population of this nation and women, and men, may have more confidence that the court understands the real-world implications of its rulings. 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. For example, one recent study demonstrated that male federal appellate court judges are less likely to rule against plaintiffs bringing claims of sex discrimination, if a female judge is on the panel.
President Obama has appointed 138 female judges – more than any President to date. But to obtain true gender diversity, the number of women in the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, must be increased.
- Upon the confirmation of Associate Justice Elena Kagan in 2010, the Supreme Court counts three women among its nine Justices for the first time in history, still only one-third of the members of that Court. Only four of the 112 Justices ever to serve on the highest court in the land have been women.
- Sixty of the 167 active judges currently sitting on the thirteen federal courts of appeal are female (36%). When broken down by circuit, women’s representation on several of these individual courts is even lower than on the courts of appeals overall:
- In particular, women are underrepresented on the Third Circuit (where they make up about 15% of judges) the Eighth Circuit (20%) and the Tenth Circuit (25%).
- Thirty-three percent of active United States district (or trial) court judges are women.
- There are still 6 district courts around the country where there has never been a female judge.
- There are 4 district courts that have had a female judge, but do not currently have one.
- For women of color, the numbers are even smaller.
- There are 83 women of color serving as active federal judges across the country (only 10.5%) including 43 African-American women, 26 Hispanic women, 11 Asian-American women, one Native American woman, one woman of Hispanic and Asian descent, and one woman of Hispanic and African-American descent.
- There are only 12 women of color on the U.S. courts of appeals (7%). Five of those women sit on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, two sit on the DC Circuit, and one woman of color sits on each of the First, Fourth, Sixth, Seventh Circuits and Federal Circuit. Therefore, there are seven federal courts of appeals without a single active minority woman judge.
By the nominations he has made, President Obama has taken an important step towards increasing the representation of women, including women of color, on the bench. He has nominated 171 women to fill federal judicial vacancies and 46% of his nominees to the federal Courts of Appeals have been women. He successfully appointed 7 women to federal Courts of Appeals and 17 women to District Courts where no female judges had previously served. In addition, he has appointed more than twice the number of women of color to the federal bench than any previous President, many of whom have similarly broken barriers on the courts on which they now sit.
During the time remaining in his term, President Obama will have further opportunities to ensure that women are fairly represented in federal courts. In addition to the current vacancy on the Supreme Court, there are 92 vacancies on the federal district and appellate courts. There are two vacancies on the District Court for the Middle District of Alabama and one vacancy on the District Court for the District of Idaho, two district courts where there has never been a female judge.
Additionally, 27 of the vacancies are for seats formerly held by female judges; therefore nominating (and confirming) fewer than 27 more women will result in a net decrease in women on the bench. It is of critical importance for the President to nominate individuals who will add gender and racial diversity to the federal bench, and for the Senate to expeditiously process those nominations, in order to improve access to, and the quality of, justice for all those who turn to our federal courts.