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State Courts Diversifying Benches Tap Mentors to Promote Pathway

Nov. 5, 2021, 8:46 AM

California’s effort to expand the pipeline for potential underrepresented judges has other states crafting similar measures to diversify their courts.

Without mentors, Teri Jackson —the first Black woman justice on California’s First Appellate District—wouldn’t have envisioned herself on the bench. She hopes others will also picture themselves as judges thanks to a new appellate court pilot mentorship program. The First Appellate District mentorship program, which pairs interested trial attorneys with a judge to learn the appointment process, is meant to fill racial and gender gaps among judges. California’s other five appellate districts are expected to follow suit.

“In my experience, it took a village and mentor, and I can think of two who convinced me that I had the makeup, and I could start to envision myself as an appellate justice,” Jackson said. “Geographical areas that have been underrepresented on our bench should have a seat at the table, and the bottom line is we all will be at the table.”

No justices identified as a person of color in 22 states as of April, according to research from the Brennan Center for Justice. Only 17% of justices across all state high courts are Black, Latino, Asian American, or Native American. Women held only 39% of state Supreme Court seats.

Using California’s model as a launchpad, Delaware is working to diversify its bench and bar pipeline for marginalized communities. The Delaware Bench and Bar Diversity Project launched in May, and six working groups will release a final plan for the state Supreme Court to consider and potentially adopt by the end of the year.

States such as New York and Washington have ambitious judicial mentorship programs, but California stands out because it is engaging with the communities it serves directly, said Danielle Hirsch, a principal court management consultant at the National Center for State Courts.

“The California program is a wonderful one because it does a lot of community outreach to all sorts of groups to encourage people—who either for reasons of not thinking they would ever get appointed or imposter syndrome or simply being too busy doing their day job to think about it or any number of other reasons—with all sorts of different backgrounds, to put themselves out there and consider the bench,” Hirsch said.

Diverse Bench Requires Diverse Bar

Increasing the racial and gender diversity of the judicial and legal pipelines will increase public trust in the legal system, said Delaware Supreme Court Justice Tamika Montgomery-Reeves.

Delaware currently has five justices, three of whom are women and one who is a person of color. Montgomery-Reeves was the first Black judge to join the state’s top court and the third woman.

“Increasing the diversity of the legal profession really is essential to improving access to justice for everybody and the public’s trust and confidence in the court system—and not just the bench, but the bar as well,” she said.

“In Delaware, when it’s time to appoint judges to our family court, our Superior Court, our Court of Chancery, and our Supreme Court, those people come from the bar and they come from our lawyers. So, if you want a more diverse bench, you have to get a more diverse bar.”

Each of the groups that are crafting the plan are tackling longstanding racial and gender disparities starting before college and ending with the bench. The working groups are made up of K-12 teachers, college professors, lawyers, bar exam and licensing officials, and judges.

However, for mentorship programs and diversity plans to work and spread nationwide there has to be total cooperation and transparency from all angles, advocates said.

Demystifying Judicial Selection

State courts have implemented judicial mentorships for decades. New York’s pipeline program, for example, started 10 years ago and part of it is to encourage attorneys of color to join the judiciary, according to a spokesperson. As of April, 50% of its Court of Appeals judges are White and the other half are Black and Hispanic, according to data from the commission. The appeals court is made up of 50% men and 50% women.

However, judicial diversity efforts can potentially fall flat without a clear definition of what diversity actually means and looks like, said Douglas Keith, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

“Courts will often, especially recently, speak about the importance of diversifying the bench. Governors who are deeply involved in the appointment of judges will also speak about this importance,” Keith said. “But it’s not often clear what they’re doing and it’s not often clear what they actually mean by diversity, because that’s a term that you really need to unpack to understand what the courts are prioritizing.”

Keith added that even though some who are interested in the bench could fear having their information released to the public, especially if rejected, transparency is necessary to demystify the judicial selection process and ultimately fix disparities at the bench.

“The more that the public knows and the more that the legal profession knows, the easier it’s going to be to fix those problems and the less the judicial selection process is going to seem like a totally inaccessible black box to people that otherwise feel like they’re just generally excluded from the process,” Keith said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com

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