July 10, 2013

Government and Judiciary: On the Rise in Elected Office and Judicial Robes

Hannah Hayes

When Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, women made up 7.3 percent of full-time appellate and district court judges, according to the U.S. Courts government website. Today, while the Supreme Court has three women justices, women make up 30.4 percent of the U.S. district courts and about 32 percent of federal courts of appeal.

According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the number of men and women lawyers who enter government service has been fairly equal over the last five years. However, the visibility of women in high administrative positions and elected offices is on the rise. In the 2012 election, voters ushered in a record number of women in both the House and the Senate, not only returning female incumbents but electing 24 female newcomers, bringing the total number of women to 81 in the House and 20 in the Senate.

Impacting Future Generations

Myra Selby was director of health care policy for the state of Indiana before she was appointed associate justice of the Indiana State Supreme Court. As the first African American woman in the state to sit on the bench, she came to realize the impact her appointment could have for future generations.

“I recall quite vividly being at the grocery store when a gentleman asked me if I was that ‘lady judge,’” Selby says. “He talked about how he saw my picture in the paper and showed it to his daughters, who were five and seven years old, and told them, ‘there’s something you can do too—you look just like her.’”

While some say women in robes and in elected office have become the new normal, the numbers still do not reflect the talent pool in an era when women comprise over 50 percent of the population. ore than a dozen district courts across the country have never had a female judge, and the numbers for women of color are still low. At the state level, 27 percent of judges are women.

Recruiting Minorities

Fernande “Nan” Duffly became the highest-ranking Asian Pacific American jurist in the history of Massachusetts when she was appointed associate justice of the state supreme court in 2011. Prior to her appointment, she served on the appeals court as well as probate and family court.

While attending Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Duffly requested funding from the administration to recruit and encourage minorities to apply, and in Boston she created a task force of lawyers and judges to advance women in law firms.

As she watched the numbers of women in the profession increase, she felt satisfied. “I thought I had made a contribution to increasing the numbers of women in the law,” Duffly says. But when the number of women in leadership stagnated, she took notice. “I looked around and said, this is not good, so I began to seriously focus on this issue again.”

Retaining and Promoting Women

In 2008, as president of the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) in Washington, D.C., Duffly created a task force on the retention and promotion of women in the legal profession. Recently, she asked a colleague whether the need for organizations like NAWJ would ever become obsolete. “Maybe there won’t be a need for an organization if the numbers are consistent with the number of women and minorities out there,” she says. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening.”

Still, there is much room for optimism. “When I started my career, the sheer numbers of women were not there, and that is changing,” says Myra Selby, now a partner at the Indianapolis law firm of Ice Miller LLP. “Just being colleagues—men and women together in this arena—that was still very new.”

Slightly over 41 percent of President Barack Obama’s confirmed nominees to the judiciary have been women, with more nominations pending. “I think we’ve made progress across the nation—after all, our president is of a mixed race,” Selby says. “But at the same time, there’s still work to be done.”

Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.