Women remain under-represented in judicial ranks
The image of justice as a blindfolded woman balancing scales is ingrained in our culture, but the notion of a woman donning robes and handling a gavel is still fairly modern.
While women have gained ground in the judiciary in recent years, progress has been slow. The percentages of women -- and minorities -- in judgeships do not come close to reflecting their proportion of the population, and the deficit has become a growing concern for organizations focused on issues of equity.
"When we see more judges who look like us, it inspires trust, credibility and confidence in the judicial system. We feel more confident that this system of justice is representative. We have trust that these judges will be fair, because the system is 'of the people,'" said Dina Refki, executive director of the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society at University at Albany-SUNY, which tracks gender equity in its yearly report on state and federal judgeships.
Nationwide, about 1 in 4 state trial court judges is a woman. In Pennsylvania, 28 percent of judges in Common Pleas Court are women, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
Reviewing Pennsylvania's numbers county by county, the Pennsylvania Bar Association's annual "Commission on Women in the Profession Report Card" found that just a handful of counties tilted the balance toward gender equity: 50 percent of Washington County judges are women (three men, three women), as are 48 percent of Philadelphia County judges (47 men to 44 women), and 31 percent of Allegheny County judges (28 men to 13 women).
Meanwhile, 28 Pennsylvania counties had no women judges and another 10 counties had only one female judge.
Lynn Marks -- executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a nonpartisan court reform organization, and co-chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness -- agreed that there is a quantitative and qualitative difference when women serve on the bench in numbers proportionate to the population.
"Judges make crucial life-and-death decisions that impact virtually all aspects of our lives. So it's important not only for women litigants and women lawyers to see women as judges -- it's important for all of us in society to see women in these positions of power," she said.
Hearing remarks by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg influenced Ms. Marks' outlook on the issue, as the jurists described discussions on cases in which "they were able to inform their colleagues about women's life experiences."
"Judges learn from one another," Ms. Marks said. "There's a richer discussion of cases where you have a wide spectrum of life experience.
"I'm not saying judges should make decisions based on their life experience. They have to follow law and precedent. But it has a crucial effect to have decision makers have a broad range of life experience," she said.
Elizabeth McNamara, who served as a felony prosecutor in Georgia for decades before becoming national director of the League of Women Voters, said the justice system has become more comprehensive as more women joined the ranks of the police force, prosecutors' office and the judiciary.
The qualitative changes, she said, include how courts handle domestic violence, how they treat child victims and how they treat sexual assault victims.
"A million decisions along the way make the determination whether a case gets to court, whether an arrest is made. You actually can see the law evolve to offer more protections to people who weren't seen as victims 20 or 30 years ago," she said.
Each state has its own laws determining how judges are selected. Some states require candidates to run in non-partisan races. Others, like Pennsylvania, allow judicial candidates to register under a party affiliation or cross-file. In some states, the legislature selects judges. Another group of states employs a commission that makes recommendations to the governor regarding judicial appointments.
In Pennsylvania, voters decide who sits on the bench. State judges are elected and subsequently come up for retention elections. The governor appoints judges only temporarily to fill a vacancy.
"What we've seen overall is not that men are more likely to win an election, but that men are more likely to approach and run for election. They may have different connections or they maybe more willing to consider doing that than women are," Ms. McNamara said.
Pennsylvania's League of Women Voters supports merit selection of judges, a process that doesn't exist in the state.
Ms. McNamara said allowing applicants to submit their credentials to a merit panel would make the judiciary attractive and accessible to diverse range of candidates.
But part of the onus is on women.
"I think it's partly that women are not applying for such positions, seeking election or appointment. I think it's really important for lawyer groups and women's groups to be encouraging women to seek judicial office whether its by election or appointment, particularly as there are more women lawyers in the work force," said Ms. Marks, of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
Advocates of merit selection say that judicial elections have the effect of diminishing the possibilities for female candidates. Studies indicate that women have gained better footing on the judiciary, at the appellate and trial level, in states with merit selection, Ms. Marks said.
In these states, a nonpartisan commission evaluates all applicants, focusing on qualifications, skills, experience, reputation, ethics and fair behavior. No one is excluded from the process due to a lack of financial resources or political connections -- running a campaign can be costly, after all.
Absent merit selection, adding more women to the bench in Pennsylvania may begin with improved candidate recruitment, according to Dana Brown, Pennsylvania Center for Women & Politics at Chatham University.
"Candidate recruitment happens in social and professional circles. It's nothing insidious. It's just that men golf with men and women attend social activities with other women. ... It's important to make our professional networks more diverse," she said.
First Published August 27, 2012 12:00 am