November 29, 2016 Articles

Why Diversity on the Federal Bench Matters

Substantive, symbolic, and legitimacy reasons for a racially and gender-varied judiciary

by Andrea C. Kramer

[A]t the end of the day, on a legal issue, I think a wise old woman and a wise old man are going to reach the same conclusion.
—Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.
—Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Not so very long ago, the federal judiciary was entirely male and white. The first African American U.S. district court judge in the continental United States was appointed only a little over 50 years ago, in 1961, to the Northern District of Illinois. (In 1937, William Henry Hastie became the first black federal district court judge, but it was not a lifetime appointment, and it was for the District of the Virgin Islands.) The gender barrier was broken in 1928, when Genevieve Rose Cline was appointed to the U.S. Customs Court (now known as the U.S. Court of International Trade), followed in 1934 by Florence Allen, the first female Article III judge. Not until decades later, in 1966, when Constance Baker Motley became a judge in the Southern District of New York, was there a female federal judge of color. The first Hispanic federal judge, Harold Medina, was appointed in 1947, to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. (Reynaldo Garza, often wrongly cited as the first Hispanic American federal judge, became the second one when he was appointed to the Southern District of Texas in 1961.) Herbert Y.C. Choy became the first federal court Asian American judge in 1971, for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Only four years ago, in 2012, Jacqueline Nguyen became the first Asian American female to serve on a federal appeals court.

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