Gavel Grab

Congressional Questions Highlight Bias Against Public Defenders

In an illuminating op-ed for the Huffington Post, Nan Aron, President of Alliance for Justice, outlines the importance of professional diversity in the judiciary, and the obstacles to achieving it. Only 14 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees have been public defenders, and 3.2 percent have worked as civil rights lawyers. The professional discrepancy is blatant when compared with the 41 percent that have been prosecutors and the 72 percent who have worked as corporate attorneys.

Last week, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions’ line of questioning aimed at Paula Xinis highlighted the problem, Aron argues. Xinis, the nominee to the the District Court of Maryland, is a public defender and civil rights lawyer. Sessions’ “line of accusatory questions” suggested that her career path would make her biased to defendants on the bench. “The questions were absurd and unfounded,” Aron says, “but they could not be dismissed as such,” because they represent a much larger problem. Aron explains:

“In part, this is due to the mistaken but rarely questioned notion that lawyering to preserve influence and privilege–to cement rather than challenge the status quo through legal practice–is somehow impartial and cannot possibly influence judicial decisionmaking. In a recent panel discussion led by Alliance for Justice, D.C. Circuit Judge Nina Pillard noted how ‘[t]here’s a sense, somehow, in the process of finding judges or candidates, that being in a large corporate law firm is neutral and being an advocate for people who have been subject to discrimination or retaliation or repression of their speech or their religious beliefs is not neutral, and . . . I would question that.’”

The panel referenced was held at Justice at Stake’s 2015 Fair Courts State Summit.

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