On February 27, 2017, the American Constitution Society at AUWCL hosted a discussion about minority representation in the American Judiciary. Leading the discussion were guest speakers Honorable Tanya Chutkan, judge for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, and Honorable George Jarrod Hazel, judge for the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. The judges addressed the disparity between the composition of the courts and the people.
The American Constitution Society recently published a study called the Gavel Gap, finding that over 50% of state judges are white men, and that women make up less than a third of judges despite being 51% of the U.S. population. Judge Chutkan and Judge Hazel discussed the impacts of this disparity between the courts and the communities they serve, as well as how we can address the problem and their own experiences as judges from minority backgrounds.
“There’s important symbolism in having [minority] representation,” Judge Hazel explained. “We live in a country where there’s an enormous amount of diversity. To see someone, or not see someone, who reflects who you are, can impact how you see the courts, whether you see them as being fair.”
“When Americans stop believing in the fairness of the judiciary, the system doesn’t work,” Judge Chutkan added.
Judge Hazel explained how, as a black judge in a court that sees predominantly black male defendants, he can sometimes understand more what the defendants have gone through, and he thinks that “having judges with different backgrounds and experiences helps the development of case law.”
As a woman of color, Judge Chutkan discussed how she also believed that diversity in the judiciary impacts the conversation, and that judges can learn from each other’s diverse experiences. She gave an example of how all the judges eat lunch together at the courthouse, sharing stories about his or her day, and how it helps to have diverse judges so that people experience diverse outlooks and learn from each other. “It’s simply having colleagues with a different perspective, that’s why diversity is important.”
In regards to how we can address the gavel gap and improve diversity in the American Judiciary, the judges had a couple ideas. Judge Chutkan discussed how we keep looking at the top 5% of students at the top ten law schools and complaining how there are not enough diverse candidates to choose from. “The talent is out there, we’re just not looking in the right places,” she explained.
Judge Hazel talked about the “pipeline,” how people traditionally end up in judicial positions. He explained that we need to more actively encourage minority law students to pursue clerkships. “We need to figure out how to get more women and people of color into that pipeline.”
When asked how judicial appointments under President Trump may further exacerbate the lack of diversity in the courts, the judges encouraged students to “take the long view” and focus on preparing minority law students and lawyers now so that the next time there is a president who values diversity in making appointments, we will have diverse candidates ready for him or her to pick from.