The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law released a new study on Tuesday (July 23) called “State Supreme Court Diversity” that revealed a severe lack of diversity among state supreme court justices. As the report points out, even though they don’t garner the same amount of attention as the United States Supreme Court, state supreme courts hold a considerable amount of power. State courts, as is noted in the study, sit atop state judiciaries and “hear 95 percent of all cases filed in the United States.”

Report authors Laila Robbins and Alicia Bannon found that 13 states have never seated a person of color as a state supreme court justice, and 24 states currently lack a justice of color on their state supreme court bench. Additional findings spelled out the report include:

  • White men now make up less than a third of the U.S. population, but more than half (56 percent) of state supreme court justices

     

  • Women make up roughly half the U.S. population, but hold 36 percent of state supreme court seats

     

  • People of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, but hold 15 percent of state supreme court seats

It also found that the state supreme courts are actually becoming Whiter: “In 1996, there were 63 percent fewer justices of color on state high court benches than would be predicted based on their representation in the general population. In 2017, that gap was 66 percent.”

To reach their conclusions, the authors “analyzed the demographics of more than 1,600 people who served as justices in the states’ highest courts between 1960 and 2019.” They also used secondary sources to study the time period before 1960. 

“Across the country, states’ most powerful courts are overwhelmingly White and male, unlike the communities they serve,” said Bannon, who, in addition to co-authoring the report, also serves as the managing director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

This lack of diversity creates a barrier between the judiciary and the communities they serve. Ohio Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown is quoted in the study as saying, “The public’s perception of justice suffers … when the only people of color in a courthouse are in handcuffs.”

The reports goes on to say:

This is particularly so in light of the vast racial disparities in the American criminal justice system, where 1 in 3 Black men are incarcerated in their lifetimes, compared with 1 in 17 White. A 2015 National Center for State Courts survey of public confidence in state courts found a “massive racial gap” in trust in the fairness of the courts, revealing a “deep distrust of courts among African Americans.”

The goal of the report is to “add urgency to efforts to build and strengthen pipelines to law school and the bench for underrepresented communities, encourage reforms to make both judicial elections and appointments more open to a diverse set of candidates, and inform discussions about how states should choose their justices in the first instance.” 

Read the report here.