AFJ Applauds Diversity Milestone; Ginsburg Looks for ‘Cooler Heads’


AFJ LEADER ON QURESHI NOMINATION: President Obama’s nomination of Washington attorney Abid Qureshi for a federal judgeship marks a milestone when it comes to the Obama administration’s record for expanding judicial diversity, The Christian Science Monitor quoted Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron as saying.

“The President has always made diversity a centerpiece of his judicial selection,” Aron added. Qureshi, if confirmed, would become the first Muslim American nominated for a federal judgeship. His confirmation to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia “could be a long shot,” the newspaper said, given its timing late in the year and the fact that Senate Republicans “have stopped confirming [Obama’s] judicial picks.”

According to The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voiced support for holding votes on “a bipartisan package of four” nominees from California, Pennsylvania and Utah. But Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., protested, saying the proposal would pass by two long-waiting district court nominees who also are “the only two African Americans on the list of the next 15 – that to me is unacceptable.”

GINSBURG SPEAKS OUT: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a law school audience about the Senate’s inaction on high court nominee Judge Merrick Garland, “I do think cooler heads will prevail, I hope sooner rather than later,” according to The Washington Post. “The president is elected for four years not three years, so the power he has in year three continues into year four,” she said. Meanwhile Vice President Joe Biden will lead a new push for a Senate vote on Garland, The New York Times said, and he was to speak at a Capitol Hill news conference today.

ACCESS TO JUSTICE AN ISSUE IN TPP: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Ma., “opened a new broadside on Wednesday against the White House’s signature Pacific trade pact,” according to Agence France-Presse, specifically objecting to what AFP described as the “so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism to resolve corporate grievances.” AFJ opposes forced alternative methods of dispute resolution including this provision.

ALABAMA JUDICIAL SELECTION CHALLENGED: The Associated Press reported, “A civil rights group challenged Alabama’s practice of electing appellate judges by statewide vote on Wednesday, saying the result is all-white courts in a state where one in four people is African-American.” A similar lawsuit, on behalf of Latino voters, was lodged in Texas earlier this summer.

History-Making Utah Judge: Great Value in Judicial Diversity

Utah State Rep. Merrill Nelson, a Republican and vice chairman of the House Judiciary, says a screening commission that vets candidates for judgeships should stop weighing diversity on the bench as a factor, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Nelson interprets the state Constitution and state law as supporting his view.

But “the language is not so clear,” the newspaper reports, and retired 3rd District Judge Tyrone Medley, the only African American who has served on the state bench, sees great value in judicial diversity.

“Our judicial system relies heavily on the public trust and confidence in the court system,” Medley said. If the population diversifies and the courts do not, the judiciary ‘runs the risk of challenging and eroding public confidence in the court system.’

“Along that same line, I think diversity, in fact, enhances the legitimacy of the court system and is consistent with our population following the rule of law,” he said. “Without it, you have a scenario where, at a minimum, you have a perceived bias in the decision-making process.”

Greater Diversity on Supreme Court is Needed: Sotomayor

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor didn’t talk about the fury over filling a court vacancy, but she said in remarks to a Brooklyn Law School audience that the court would benefit from more diversity of professional experience and personal backgrounds.

Different backgrounds  help justices “educate each other to be better listeners and better thinkers because we understand things from experience,” she said, according to The Associated Press. Nonetheless, she said court decisions depend upon the law.

“But a different perspective can permit you to more fully understand the arguments that are before you and help you articulate your position in a way that everyone will understand,” Sotomayor said.

Opinion: Lack of Diversity in Alaskan Courts A Problem

An opinion piece appearing in the Alaska Dispatch News criticizes the lack of cultural and gender diversity in the state’s judicial system, following the announcement that Justice Dana Fabe, the only woman on the all-white Alaska Supreme Court, is retiring in June.

The article reports that of the 73 judges serving the district to supreme court levels in Alaska, only 5 are of a minority background and only 18 are women. The author spoke with District Court Judge Pamela Washington, one of only two African-American judges of a district court level or higher, who reportedly stressed the importance of judicial diversity and said that it creates confidence in the justice system. (more…)

Opinion: ‘Why Aren’t We Getting’ More Women Judges?

“We desperately need more women judges, so why aren’t we getting them?”

A Washington Post column by Petula Dvorak asked this question hours after the Virginia General Assembly elected Court of Appeals Judge Stephen McCullough for the Virginia Supreme Court, effectively removing an interim appointee, Justice Jane Marum Roush (see Gavel Grab).

“In the highest state courts across the country, only 29 percent of judges are women, according to the National Association for Women Judges,” Dvorak wrote. “Is this because we simply don’t have women qualified for judicial appointments? Of course not.” Dvorak turned to an expert for the answer:

“’It’s because we’re not in the back rooms yet,’ Penny J. White, a law professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, told me when Roush was fighting to keep her job last fall. White knows something about this, having served on the Tennessee State Supreme Court. ‘When those backroom deals are made, it’s mostly men making those decisions.’”


Rhode Island Legislators Discuss Judicial Diversity Bill

The Providence Journal reports that discussions have begun on legislation aimed at increasing the diversity of Rhode Island’s judicial system. The bill would add a diversity requirement to the rules governing the composition of the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission (see Gavel Grab).

Addressing the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic Rep. Anastasia Williams said, “It’s come to the point where we do not need to study it. We do not need to talk about it much more, but rather we need to act.” According to the newspaper she went on to note that of 85 state judges, magistrates and Supreme Court justices, only four are of color.

The committee has reportedly recommended that the measure be held for study.

U.S. Judgeship in North Carolina Now a 10-Year Vacancy

An opinion piece in the News & Observer, by two attorneys from the UNC Center for Civil Rights, looks at how growing caseloads and a judicial vacancy crisis have restricted diversity and strained the federal courts in North Carolina.

According to authors Mark Dorosin and Brent Ducharme, the political motivation displayed in recent opposition to President Obama’s nomination of a successor to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has occurred when it comes to filling appellate and district judgeships, but gone under the radar.  There are currently 76 vacant judgeships on the federal district and appellate courts.

“While the high-profile and abstract constitutional debate swirls around a replacement for Justice Scalia, critical vacancies on the lower courts remain ignored, and the wait for those seeking relief and justice grows longer,” they write. (more…)

AL: Black Lawyers Frustrated by Resistance to Obama Appointments

According to the Birmingham Times, opposition to President Obama’s plans to fill the vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat and other federal openings has caused frustration among a number of black legal organizations.

The political circus in Washington following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia comes after more turmoil in Alabama surrounding resistance to the nomination of Judge Abdul Kallon for Alabama’s 11th Circuit. The seat, which has been vacant for almost three years, has yet to be filled and Kallon would make history by becoming the first African American from the state to serve on the appellate court.

“This is so political,” said Alabama Democratic congresswoman Terri Sewell, who was the keynote speaker at a recent symposium in Birmingham on Judicial Diversity. “The selection of federal judges should not be a partisan issue. We all benefit when diverse candidates are considered based on their qualifications, ability and character, not political ideology,” she added.

Benjamin Crump, President of the National Bar Association, said it’s not only Kallon’s nomination that’s being held up. Speaking to the newspaper, Crump named a number of prominent jurists, “all of them black, most are Ivy League educated with exceptional credentials, and yet they can’t even get a hearing.”


First LGBT Chief Justice Confirmed in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s Senate has confirmed Justice Maite Oronoz Rodriguez as Chief Justice of the commonwealth’s highest court. She becomes the first openly LGBT chief justice in Puerto Rico and the United States, Lambda Legal said in applauding her elevation.

Her confirmation “makes history, breaks barriers, and marks a momentous step towards achieving a judiciary that reflects full and rich diversity of our country.  A diverse judiciary serves not only to improve the quality of justice, it boosts public confidence in the courts,” wrote Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan. Lambda Legal is a Justice at Stake partner organization. 

Meanwhile WBHM FM in Alabama reported on the potential impact of judicial elections in Jefferson County, which could bring greater diversity to the bench.

Marion County, IN Judge Selection Bill Faces Criticism

Members of Indiana’s Black Legislative Caucus have criticized legislation to write a new judicial selection method for Marion County, the home of the state capital, saying it does not do enough to advance diversity on the bench.

You can learn about details of the latest version of the legislation from Gavel Grab. In the words of The Indianapolis Star, members of the Black Caucus said the bill “encourages disenfranchisement of minority voters because it does not require the [nominating and selection] committee to have minority or diverse members. Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, said she’s concerned the current proposal would result in a judiciary that’s too slanted toward one race or toward one political party affiliation and does not represent diversity in Marion County.”

With the bill on the House floor, an amendment to move to the outright election of Marion County Superior Court judges failed. Other coverage included Indiana Lawyer, “Black lawmakers oppose Marion County judge selection bill”; and Indianapolis Business Journal, “Lawmakers concerned about judicial diversity if ‘merit’ bill passes.”

When Justice at Stake submitted a statement earlier about a different version of the bill, it proposed changes to ensure a well-designed merit selection system and said that such a system promotes diversity on the bench.