Few women on the bench

February 3, 2010
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Women just barely outnumber men in the U.S., and nearly half of law school grads and firm associates are women, yet we still make up less than a third, and sometimes, less than a tenth of the judges in state or federal courts.

The nomination of two female judges to the U.S. District’s Southern District of Indiana is definitely a step in the right direction. It will double the number of women on the federal bench here; however, that sounds more significant than it really is. If confirmed, we’ll have four women on the federal bench, which will mean women make up only 13 percent of that bench. That is an improvement on our current 9.6 percent female makeup.

A report recently released by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society from the University at Albany, State University of New York, ranked Indiana pretty low when it came to the female composition of our benches. We’re 46th in the country in terms of the percentage of women on our federal bench; we fared a little better in state courts, where we tied for 35th place with 20.7 percent of female judges.

The report attributes this gender gap to not a lack of qualified women but lack of opportunity and access to the bench. Various legal organizations and bar associations have addressed this issue, with the latest happening tonight in Washington, D.C. While the event “How to become a judge” doesn’t specifically say it’s for women, it’s presented in part by the District of Columbia Women’s Bar Association and is comprised of a mostly female panel.

Indiana’s courts are not very diverse, especially when compared to other states. We are one of a handful of states that don’t have a woman on our Supreme Court. What needs to be done to get more qualified women and minorities on the bench?
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  1. Indianapolis Bar Association President John Trimble and I are on the same page, but it is a very large page with plenty of room for others to join us. As my final Res Gestae article will express in more detail in a few days, the Great Recession hastened a fundamental and permanent sea change for the global legal service profession. Every state bar is facing the same existential questions that thrust the medical profession into national healthcare reform debates. The bench, bar, and law schools must comprehensively reconsider how we define the practice of law and what it means to access justice. If the three principals of the legal service profession do not recast the vision of their roles and responsibilities soon, the marketplace will dictate those roles and responsibilities without regard for the public interests that the legal profession professes to serve.

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