The judiciary is less homogenous than it used to be, but the judges and justices sitting on federal and state benches remain overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white, according to the ABA’s Profile of the Legal Profession, an annual report on diversity in the judiciary and legal profession that was released last month.
However, things may be shifting. The Senate confirmed 68 new federal judges from Jan. 1, 2021, to July 1, 2022. Of these, 65 (96%) identified as female, Black, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American or mixed race or ethnicity.
Of the 25 new state Supreme Court justices who took office over the past year (April 2021 to May 2022 in the report), 15 were women, 10 were people of color, and seven were women of color.
And this doesn’t include Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lisa Holder White, who, in July 2022, became the first Black woman to sit on Illinois’ highest court.
“Last year, my hometown federal courthouse in Detroit got a new judge. Her name is Shalina Kumar and she is the first federal judge of South Asian descent in Michigan… A year earlier, the western side of the state got a new federal judge named Hala Jarbou. She is the first Chaldean American federal judge in the nation,” said ABA President Reginald Turner in the report. “Judge Kumar and Judge Jarbou are welcome additions to the bench. Besides their wisdom and experience, they bring a small measure of diversity to our federal judiciary, which is still largely white and largely male.”
Slowly increasing diversity in the federal judiciary
There have been 116 justices of the U.S. Supreme Court but, until 2022, none of them were Black women. That changed with the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson.
However, as ABA President Turner asked a panel in July, “Is she representative of judicial diversity or is she the exception?”
The percentage of female federal judges overall has grown slightly, up 3% from 27% in 2020 to 30% in 2022. While the number of Black female judges serving in federal courts is growing too, they still account for just 4% of all federal judges, the report says.
Most Black women serve at the federal trial court level – the U.S. district courts. According to the profile, California had six Black female judges in district court, while Illinois and New York each had four. Twenty-seven states had none.
Overall, the racial composition of the federal bench has changed marginally. The number of Black judges is up slightly (9.5% in 2020 to 11% in 2022), as is the number of Hispanic judges (6.5% in 2020 to 7.7% in 2022), and Asian judges (2.6% in 2020 to 3.8% in 2022). Just four-tenths of 1% of all federal judges are Native American.
Federal judges of color are underrepresented when it comes to the U.S. population as a whole. But when compared to the current demographics of U.S. lawyers, the pool from which judges are drawn, the gap isn’t as significant. (see chart below) This supports the continued need for recruiting, mentoring, and sponsoring law students and attorneys of color, so the pool of diverse lawyers grows.
Diversity in the state judiciary
White men are more heavily represented in states’ top courts than in the U.S. population overall, according to a 2022 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Just 18% of justices in the states’ high courts are Black, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, or multiracial. However, people of color make up 40% of the U.S. population. Also, 59% of state supreme court justices are male. In contrast, 49% of the U.S. population is male.
The Brennan study found that in 20 states, no justices on the highest court publicly identify as a person of color. The profile noted that in Nevada, nearly half the population (49%) is non-white, but all seven justices on the Supreme Court of Nevada are white.
Breakdown of Justices on State High Courts
However, as noted previously, state supreme court justices who have taken office over the past year are increasingly diverse.
This includes Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lisa Holder White, who was sworn in in July. Justice Holder White is the first Black woman to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court.
The Illinois Supreme Court has emphasized its commitment to diversity in the judiciary and a judicial system free of bias. In 2020, the Supreme Court hired a Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Deanie Brown, to foster diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership and staffing.
Brown also works with the Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts to provide programmatic leadership that advances and promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion for the benefit of the Illinois Judicial Branch.
Check back for part 2 of this series, which will explore the demographics of the legal profession.
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If they are qualified, why does this matter?