Bring gender equality to the courts

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Add another entry to Iowa’s gender equality hall of shame: Our courts.

On average, state Supreme Courts are 31 percent female. Women are chief justices in 20 states; they make up the majority of Supreme Court justices in five. But only two women have been appointed to Iowa’s state Supreme Court. Ever.

And when traditional marriage crusaders helped oust Chief Justice Marsha Ternus in 2010, Iowa joined a short-short list of states (there are two others) without a single woman on the state court of last resort.

“This all kind of surprised me,” says third-year University of Iowa law student and Oskaloosa native Gina Messamer, 26, whose research uncovered all of the above. “I grew up here,” she told me this week. “I didn’t know it was a problem.”

Messamer’s study, “Iowa’s All Male Supreme Court,” is published in the current edition of the Iowa Law Review. In it, she recommends making minor changes to the way judicial nominees are selected in order to remove the subtle biases she thinks are keeping women from the bench. The problem has two parts, Messamer found: Relatively few women apply for high-court positions, and even fewer are nominated for the job.

Messamer found that between 1978 and 2011, women made up only 21 percent of the applicant pool for Supreme Court justice vacancies. But even though female and male applicants’ qualifications were very comparable, disproportionately few female names were forwarded to governors for consideration — just 10 percent of the judicial nominating commission’s nominees.

She also found that, historically, female candidates had been asked to field sexist and irrelevant questions, such as what their husbands thought of their application or how they planned to balance work and family. “I’m assuming it’s not quite so overt anymore,” she said.

She recommends better training of nominating commission members and clearer evaluations of candidates on qualifications and characteristics needed on the bench. Her suggestions should be taken seriously, especially if we want bright young women like Messamer to stay in Iowa - to build their lives and careers here. As for Messamer, she’ll finish out her final year of law school and likely head to Des Moines to practice. She joked about joining the “boy’s club,” but then turned serious.

“I grew up in Iowa and I never felt that I was denied any opportunity because I was a woman,” she told me. “But then seeing [the history], and getting ready to join a community of lawyers,” she trailed off. “It was pretty personal,” she said.

“It doesn’t make it harder for me to imagine my career, but it does make me think it might be harder to get what I want,” she told me. “That I’m going to have to work harder.”

What a crummy lesson for our young professionals, who have every right to expect an even shot at success. What a sad history we have to teach them.

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