Racial diversity lacking: No minorities in decade of appointments to IN benches

Although the next Court of Appeals judge has not been selected, the three candidates nominated ensure Indiana will continue its 9-year streak of judicial appointments that do not include a person of color.

Minorities are continuing to draw attention to the lack of diversity within the Hoosier judiciary and are calling upon state leaders as well as the legal profession to undertake a concerted effort to bring more minorities to the bench.

The Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Indiana issued a statement June 18 highlighting the homogeny of Indiana’s federal and state benches. Not only does Indiana have, for the first time in decades, an all-white Supreme Court, an all-white Northern District of Indiana and an all-white 7th Circuit, but the state Judicial Nominating Committee is also all-white.

“During this time, well-qualified minority candidates of both major political parties have repeatedly been passed over,” APABA-IN said in a statement. “We do not fault those who have attained their current judicial positions, for they have participated under the rules and institutions as they exist. However, it is those rules and institutions that need to reflect the diversity of both our professional and civil societies. In this day and age, the lack of diversity in our justice system is simply unacceptable.”

Southern Indiana District Court Chief Judge Tanya Pratt, who was confirmed in 2010, and Court of Appeals Judge Rudolph Pyle III, who was appointed in 2012, were the last minorities to be placed on the bench in Indiana.

Since then, the state’s new judges and justices have all been white, according to research compiled by APABA-IN. The trend will continue in the immediate future, as the three Court of Appeals nominees selected June 8 were all white, as well.

The list of judicial appointments and confirmations is as follows:

Southern Indiana District Court – Judges James Sweeney and James Hanlon, 2018

Northern Indiana District Court – Judges Damon Leichty and Holly Brady, 2019

Indiana Supreme Court – Chief Justice Loretta Rush (2012) and Justices Mark Massa (2012), Geoffrey Slaughter (2016) and Christopher Goff (2017)

Indiana Court of Appeals – Judges Robert Altice (2015), Elizabeth Tavitas (2018) and Leanna Weissmann (2020)

7th Circuit Court of Appeals (Indiana seats) – now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett (2017) and Judge Thomas Kirsch (2020)

Through five confirmations since 2017, including the two from Indiana, the 7th Circuit has remained the only federal appellate court in the country without a minority judge.

Barrett was confirmed to the Indiana seat on the Chicago-based court after President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Indiana Justice Myra Selby, an African American woman, was blocked in the U.S. Senate. When Barrett was elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court, the vacancy was filled by Kirsch.

During this same period, the other judges confirmed to the 7th Circuit were Michael Scudder and Amy St. Eve, who filled the Illinois seats, and Michael Brennan, who was confirmed to the Wisconsin seat.

Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, nominated by President Joe Biden, would be the first minority judge on the 7th Circuit since Judge Ann Claire Williams retired in 2018. The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced her nomination in April 2021, but the full Senate has yet to hold a confirmation vote.

Creating a pipeline

While the racial composition of the Indiana courts has remained unchanged, women have made inroads. Five of the last 13 appointments have been females and one of the current nominees for the open Court of Appeals seat is a woman, Marion Superior Judge Heather Welch.

“I think anytime you have women and women of color appointed to the highest bench, it’s progress,” Elizabeth Bellin, vice chair of the Indiana State Bar Association Women in Law Section, said. “The question is, is it enough?”

The solo practitioner in Elkhart noted the disparity between females comprising close to and sometimes more than 50% Indiana’s law school classes but making up less than half of the court appointments in the past decade. She surmised women may be hesitant to pursue a judicial position because they are fearful they will shortchange their family obligations.

Bellin called for women to rally around each other, encouraging and supporting their female colleagues to seek judgeships.

“It very much enhances the legitimacy of the court to have a cross-section,” Bellin said. “Women have so much to offer the profession and are absolutely crucial to the judiciary, in my opinion.”

Attorney TyJuan Garrett, second vice president of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP Branch #3053, said lawyers of color have a number of obstacles to getting on the bench. Namely, they usually do not have access to the network of support, pedigreed background and political connections that is often needed to get on the radar for a federal or state judicial appointment.

The comparatively smaller number of African Americans who graduate from law school tend to concentrate in practice areas like family, criminal and personal injury law. They have courtroom experience, but they are not getting the opportunities to handle cutting-edge matters.

“People of color or those from disadvantaged backgrounds do not start the race at the same time and place as others start,” Garrett said.

He sees the effort to get more diversity in Indiana’s judiciary as a multipronged approach. In particular, the legal profession will have to provide, cultivate and mentor young lawyers of color and focus on the overall goal of having more diversity in law school, law firms, in-house legal departments and political positions.

APABA-IN emphasized it has the utmost respect for every member of the bench, but it also urged state leaders to examine the current process used to select new judges.

The organization said, “APABA-Indiana will continue to do its part to engage with our state’s leaders on the importance of diversity, particularly in the justice system, and will work even harder to identify and support all qualified minority candidates. We ask our state’s leaders, in turn, to ensure that their judicial selection processes provide an equal opportunity for all qualified attorneys to reach the bench and to ensure our judiciary reflects the richness and diversity of our great state.”•

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