Gender diversity should be a consideration when appointing judges, panel members say

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Tulane University Prof. Sally Kenney said Thursday she had better arguments for getting a woman on the bench than women make different decisions than men, and she even wrote a book about it, “Gender and Justice.”

“Bottom line - efforts need to be more pointed for gender diversity,” Kenney,  a founder of the Infinity Project, which promotes gender diversity on the state and federal court bench, said during the organization’s annual meeting in Des Moines. The group had its meeting in conjunction with events sponsored by the Iowa State Bar Association and the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys.

Kenney said “difference” isn’t necessary to justify inclusion and diversity increases the appearance of fairness. She suggested it’s employment discrimination if there are women in the “qualified labor pool” and they’re not chosen. It should be compared to geographic representation like on the 8th Circuit court where judges are specifically selected from each state in the district.

Kenney also pointed out there are 274 male judges on Iowa district courts and only 93 female judges. The one woman, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, who lost her retention vote in 2010, was replaced by a man and now there are no women. Only the second woman in history was recently appointed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals – former Assistant Federal Public Defender Jane Kelly of Cedar Rapids.

“Just because more women are going to law school doesn’t mean more women will become judges,” Kenney said. “Symbolism matter for legitimacy of the courts – justice must be seen to be done.”

Former Iowa Attorney General Bonnie Campbell, a panel member, agreed with Kenney that symbolism is important and the judges don’t look like the community they represent. She pointed out that she has been the only female to serve as attorney general in the state.

Fifth Judicial Associate District Judge Romonda Belcher, panel member, said everybody is different and she can’t separate being African-American and being a woman. Each person is shaped by his or her childhood experiences and each have different life experiences.

“It shapes who we are as jurists,” Belcher said. “We should embrace these differences.”

Drake University Associate Prof. Rachel Caulfield, also a panel member, said there was never any intentional effort to advance gender diversity when the nominating commissions were set up in the merit selection system. Much of the recruitment for judges is word of mouth through other judges or the commissioners, so that is a “tightknit” group who is choosing judicial candidates, which may not create diversity.

Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Michael Melloy was also honored during Infinity’s meeting for his 27 years on the federal bench. Melloy took senior status on the bench as Kelly replaced him last month.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose said Melloy was her mentor, as well as Kelly’s, and she learned things about him doing her research for this event that she didn’t know. One thing she learned is that he didn’t have statistics on how many cases he presided over, his memories were of the people. He remembered some important trials and defendants, and issues when mandatory sentencing guidelines changed.

Melloy didn't talk much about his career. He said he appreciated all the support he had over the years and then chose to focus on others. He said he remembered the first time he talked to Kelly about being a judge years ago in the produce aisle at a Cedar Rapids Hy-Vee store.

“I guess there are more happy smiles in those aisles,” he said grinning.

Melloy said he hopes there will be “diversity in general on the bench, not just gender. All forms of diversity.”

Kelly, was also formally introduced at the meeting by her other mentor, retired 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Hansen. She said she “didn’t get here on her own” and thanked Hansen and Melloy for their support over the years and the Infinity Project for its support and encouragement throughout her judicial nomination. 

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