Judicial branch lacks gender diversity

Disparity even more pronounced in Iowa

Debra Fitzpatrick, Infinity Project
Debra Fitzpatrick, Infinity Project

The federal bench still lacks gender diversity, despite growing numbers of women in the legal profession.

Since the 1980s, more women have entered law schools, and women continue to apply when openings are available. Yet they lag behind with 328 on the federal bench, compared with 442 men, according to the Federal Judicial Center.

The imbalance is more obvious in Iowa. No women on the Supreme Court, none in the Southern District and only one in the Northern District. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Iowa, has one woman, the only one ever appointed.

U.S. Magistrate Celeste Bremer of the Southern District concludes that it hasn’t been important enough to those who make the recommendations.

“It’s not that there is a lack of talented, experienced women or enough women in the pool. I think women have made themselves available,” said Bremer, who has served for 26 years. “So how do we change that? We have to make it important to the state senators.”

Advocates for gender equity on the bench remain optimistic. The Senate recently confirmed three women to two federal courts in New York and Arkansas, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has recommended three women to fill the vacancy in the Southern District.

Debra Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Infinity Project based in Minnesota, said the project was created four years ago to highlight the importance of gender equity to the 8th Circuit, which includes Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Arkansas.

The project, housed at the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, started with four volunteers, including Fitzpatrick, who were appalled by the gender statistics.

“The numbers of women judges in the state courts have increased over the years, but as you move up into the higher courts, there are fewer and fewer,” Fitzpatrick said.

The statistics for federal courts:

Associate Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is the third woman among the nine justices for the first time. Still, it is only one-third of court. Only four of the 112 justices ever to serve have been women.

Forty-nine of 162 active judges in the 13 federal courts of appeal are women. In the individual courts, only one woman has been appointed to the 8th Circuit, and one woman currently serves on the 10th Circuit. In the 3rd Circuit, 15 percent of the judges are women, and 23 percent of the judges are women in the 4th Circuit.

Thirty percent of the active district or trial court judges are women.

Fitzpatrick said Infinity Project volunteers in each state within the 8th Circuit reach out to senators and other politicians about the need for balance in the courts. Members believe the federal bench should reflect society as a whole and take into account different life experiences and points of view, she said.

“We don’t advocate for individual candidates. We just remind them of the list of qualified women out there,” Fitzpatrick said. “One of the volunteers talked with Harkin’s staff before he made his recommendations (for Southern District). We were pleased about how serious he was about filling it with a woman.”

Harkin recommended U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose, Fifth Judicial District Judge Karen Romano and Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Mary Tabor for the position.

“Twenty people applied, and quite frankly, all were well-qualified, but I was impressed by the quality of the women,” Harkin said. “We need diversity on the bench. ... It’s ironic because Iowa was the first state to admit a woman to the bar. Gender diversity helps the strength of the country, just like racial diversity.”

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett said it’s vitally important that people have faith in our justice system, and the way to accomplish that is by increasing diversity in the federal courts to reflect the diversity of the nation.

“It’s not that a woman and minority judges rule differently on any specific case or types of cases,” Bennett said, “but their life experiences add to the mosaic and tapestry of the federal bench because judges learn from each other. It’s important not only to the public but to all federal judges to have a broad spectrum of life experience and differing views among us.”

Amy Matsui, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, said more work needs to done to bring equity to the judiciary because women still don’t get the mentorship and cultivation needed to succeed at the highest levels of the profession.

“Often, potential candidates for judicial positions and law firm partnerships need a prominent, well-respected individual or multiple strong supporters advocating for them,” Matsui said.

Matsui pointed out that sex discrimination also plays a role, so protections need to be in place and be enforced.

Fitzpatrick said the Infinity Project offers the kind of support Matsui mentioned.

“We encourage women to apply and to find mentors to demystify the process for them,” Fitzpatrick said. “We help prepare them for the questions that will be asked. There’s an unbelievable amount of information to submit; it’s daunting.”


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