On February 20, civil rights organization Brennan Center for Justice released an update to its July 2019 study “State Supreme Court Diversity.” State courts, which hear 95 percent of all cases filed in the United States, hold enormous power and ultimately have the final say in interpreting state laws. However, the judges presiding over these courts fail to “reflect the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of the communities they serve,” the report points out, adding that a diverse court is “crucial to achieving a fair system of justice and promoting public trust in our courts.”
The July study, drawn on close to 60 years of data and ending in May 2019, focused on why racial and gender disparities prevail on benches across the country. The new data highlighted in Thursday’s update focuses on what the courts look like right now. Most significantly, it notes that the majority of state supreme court seats still go to White men:
Since we last collected data, which went through May 2019, there have been 19 openings on state supreme courts across the country. Fourteen of these vacancies have since been filled, two via elections and 12 via appointments. Half of these seats—seven in total—were filled by White men, including in four states where people of color make up over 30 percent of the population. Of the remaining seats, four were filled by White women, one by a Black woman and two by a male and female Native American justice, respectively. In the aggregate, there was little movement in the overall demographic composition of state high courts.
Key findings from the report, highlighted in an emailed summary of the new statistics, show only minor shifts in a positive direction. Overall, state supreme courts continue to “fail to reflect an increasingly diverse U.S. population”:
- 23 states have all-White state supreme court benches, down from 24 in May 2019. In 12 of these states, people of color represent 20 percent or more of the population.
- 15 states have either one or zero female justices on their state supreme court benches.
- Women hold 37 percent of state supreme court seats, an increase of 1 percentage point since May 2019.
- Florida has no women or Black justices on its highest court. The last Black justice to serve on the court reached the end of her term in January 2019.
Despite the lack of improvement in the racial makeup of judges, the report does point to a few historic appointments: Tamika Montgomery-Reeves became the first Black supreme court justice in the history of Delaware, and Raquel Montoya-Lewis became the first Native American person to sit on the supreme court bench in Washington state.
“Representation matters,” Montoya-Lewis told The Monroe Monitor. “Having a voice at the table—and on the bench—for Native American communities and other underrepresented communities will ensure a thoughtful review of the issues at hand, now and in the future.”