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Diversity Week Session Looks at Make Up of Federal Courts

Diversity on the federal courts is a relatively recent development, given the fact that it took the United States 145 years before anyone other than a white man was named to the lifetime position of a federal court judge.

As part of Diversity Week on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus, Dr. Ray Carman, assistant professor of political science, chronicled the history of diversity on the federal courts and discussed the effect diversity has had on judicial decision-making. 

Carman told the diverse audience of about 20 students and faculty that it wasn’t until 1934 when Franklin Roosevelt appointed Florence Ellinwood Allen to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

Over the next 83 years, milestones were made on the courts in gender, racial, ethnic and sexuality diversity, but the U.S. judiciary has remained predominately white and male.

More Diverse Than Ever

Today, of the some 1,300 active and semi-retired federal judges, 60 percent are white men while only 11 percent are African American and seven percent are Latino, according to the Center for American Progress. Thirty-three percent of active federal judges are women.  Seven percent are held by women of color.

Even so, Carman said the U.S. judiciary is more diverse than it has ever been, but more needs to be done.

“It’s not unprecedented that we had a Supreme Court that was all male for the first 200 years,” he said. “It wasn’t until Presidents Kennedy and Johnson did we start to see some commitment to diversity.”

But it wasn’t until 1967 that Justice Thurgood Marshall broke the Supreme Court color barrier. It would be another 14 years before a woman would be seated at the bench when President Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor.

Diversity Needed in Law Schools

One of the problems facing the future of federal court diversity, Carman maintains, is the lack of diversity at law schools. Law schools have to draw in a more diverse student population to essentially create a pool from which to choose.

“We are seeing a bench more diverse than the population it draws from in terms of lawyers,” he said. Considering that the population more than tripled from 76 million in 1900 to 308 million in 2010, and at the beginning of the century, 1 out of 8 Americans was of a race other than white whereas by 2000 the ratio was 1 out of four, it shouldn’t be that difficult.

“Having a more diverse bench is important. It’s hard to go before a court when that court looks nothing like you do,” Carman said.

Carman’s “Diversity on the Federal Courts” was just one of many events, lectures and discussions being offered during Diversity week. 

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