For Our Courts to Work for All of Us, They Have to Look Like All of Us. 2021 Took Us a Few Steps in the Right Direction.
By Jody Rabhan
Women make up just over half the population of the United States, yet only 33 percent of the federal bench. Federal judges, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, serve in lifetime appointments and can determine our laws for generations, which means having federal judges who look like the communities they serve is important. Bringing diverse experiences and perspectives to the bench allows judges to make better-informed decisions, in addition to increasing public confidence in their rulings. As National Women’s Law Center noted, “The increased presence of women on the federal bench improves the quality of justice: women judges can bring an understanding of the impact of the law on the lives of women and girls to the bench, and enrich courts’ understanding of how best to realize the intended purpose and effect of the law that the courts are charged with applying.” Be they issues of sexual harassment, pay equity, abortion and more, a woman’s perspective can ensure “that rulings reflect a broader set of viewpoints, especially those that are traditionally overlooked, while acting as a check on a single dominant perspective.” More women on the federal bench can help ensure the judiciary acts with our interests, priorities, and values in mind.
As our federal courts were increasingly stacked under the last administration with mostly young, white, men, the current president pursued a different course in his first year in office — recognizing that different skills and experiences help improve the quality and depth of judicial decisions and access to justice.
One seismic shift for the better has been the confirmation of female judges. In just less than a year since President Biden took office, eighty percent of the judges confirmed are women, a staggering expansion of gender on the federal courts. Plus, of the 32 confirmed female federal judges, 21 of them are women of color — doubling the number of Black women on the circuit courts alone.
These women are unquestionably qualified, professionally and racially diverse, and powerhouses in their fields. Here are just some of the new women judges confirmed by the Senate in 2021:
Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, the first-ever former public defender on the Seventh Circuit and the only Black woman on the Seventh Circuit.
Judge Tiffany Cunningham, with a 20-year history of patent law and training as a chemical engineer, became the first Black judge on the Federal Circuit Court, which hears cases involving technology, science, and medicine.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former public defender and upon confirmation became the first Black woman to serve on a federal appeals court in ten years.
Judge Lucy Koh, the first Korean-American woman to serve as a federal appellate judge and only the third woman from the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community to serve on any circuit court. Now on the Ninth Circuit, Judge Koh worked in private practice, gaining expertise in patent, trade secret, and commercial civil litigation, and spent seven years working for the US Department of Justice prior to becoming a federal judge.
Judge Eunice Lee, the only judge on the Second Circuit with experience as a public defender and the second Black woman to ever serve on the Second Circuit.
Judge Myrna Pérez, a voting rights expert who is the first in her family to attend college. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Judge Pérez is the only Latina on the Second Circuit.
Judge Beth Robinson, the first openly lesbian judge to serve on a federal appellate court, has an extensive background in employment law, worker’s compensation, contract disputes, family law, and civil rights. Judge Robinson is also a pioneer in shaping the legislative and litigation strategy behind the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Judge Jennifer Sung, the first AAPI judge from Oregon on the Ninth Circuit and the third AAPI woman to ever serve on a US Court of Appeals, has the most experience working at a labor union of any sitting judge on the Ninth Circuit — a critical perspective as the circuit covers some of the highest unionization rates in the country.
Judge Veronica Rossman, an immigrant whose family fled Russia due to antisemitism and who has extensive experience as a public defender, now on the Tenth Circuit — a court that frequently hears religious discrimination and religious liberty cases.
Judge Holly Thomas, the second Black woman ever on the Ninth Circuit (and the first from California), who has spent the bulk of her career as a civil rights litigator working for both the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Civil Rights Division in the US Department of Justice.
This “greatest hits” of women judges is only the beginning of what this administration can achieve working in partnership with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL). They are exactly the types of judges desperately needed to transform our federal courts. For far too long, our courts have perpetuated inequality — judges are picked from the same pool of experience and often with the same educational backgrounds. Similar perspectives can include similar inherent biases that result in similar outcomes — hardly “equal justice under the law” as inscribed upon the US Supreme Court.
While the pace of confirmations and quality of the 40 federal judges confirmed to date is something to celebrate, the lack of federal judges representing historically underrepresented groups — including women — persists. It is on us to work with our senators to identify a diversity of candidates for the federal bench, and to hold them accountable to see that a rich tapestry of federal judges are confirmed as quickly as possible. For our courts to work for all of us, they have to look like all of us. Learn more about the federal courts and judicial nominees at courtsmatter.org