Gavel Gap Study Highlights Lack of Diversity on State Courts; IAALS Offers Solutions

A recent study by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS) is shedding new light on the demographics of state judiciaries across the country. The Gavel Gap project collected data based on the race, ethnicity, and gender of 10,000 sitting state court judges, and then analyzed how closely each state’s bench reflects its population. The report gives each state a grade from “A” to “F” based on the relationship between the diversity of the bench and the diversity of the state’s population.

The report’s data is vital because a lack of diversity on the bench can create a “mistrust of judges, and propagate the mystery surrounding the court system,” says Vanderbilt University law professor and co-author of the report, Tracey George.  Now that the results are in, George says, “we have the data we need to identify and address this serious problem.”

Colorado was one of the 26 states to receive an “F” in the ACS report because its judiciary is 45 percent less diverse on average than the state population. According to Malia Reddick, who heads IAALS’ Quality Judges Initiative, a large part of Colorado’s lack of judicial diversity, and diversity on the bench nationwide, “is a pipeline issue.” When considering how Colorado’s judiciary came to be so unrepresentative, “it’s important to look at the attorneys from which judges are chosen,” Reddick said an interview with the Denver Business Journal.

To address the problem, bar associations and law schools are working to recruit more women and minorities into the legal profession. But, Reddick believes states like Colorado can take other steps to increase judicial diversity as well, like creating rules that encourage those who appoint members of judicial nominating commissions to take diversity on the commission into account. This will likely motivate judicial candidates with diverse backgrounds to apply, ensure that they receive adequate consideration for judicial openings, and help the bench become more representative of the state population as a whole.

“The kind of decisions judges make depend on their past experiences and perspectives. You will get better, richer, decisions from judges who have had different experiences.”

Mark Staines is a second-year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and contributes to IAALS Online. Please direct inquiries about this post to iaals@du.edu.