Highlights from May I Approach?: The Impact of Black Women As Appellate Judges

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Racial Equity

This week, Building the Bench kicked off its new virtual discussion series May I Approach? Courts and the Power of Inclusion with a dynamic conversation about the impact of Black women on our federal appeals courts.

This powerhouse panel featured Justice Adrienne Nelson, the first African American to sit on the Oregon Supreme Court; Judge Bernice B. Donald, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit; and Danielle Holley-Walker, Dean of the Howard University School of Law. Moderator Melissa Murray,  Faculty Director of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network at  New York University School of Law and co-host of the popular Strict Scrutiny podcast, guided the panel through a review of the obstacles facing Black women in the legal profession and the importance of diversity on the bench.

Justice Nelson shared how meaningful it was the first time she took her seat as a trial court judge in 2006. “People actually came to see me sit on the bench,” she recalled. “Because they would say, ‘I never thought that would happen in my lifetime.’” She ended up noticing that people from a variety of demographics felt that they could be more open in her courtroom than in those of her colleagues.

When she assumed her seat on the Oregon Supreme Court in 2018, she recounted that people felt she was receiving attention because of her popularity. “I said it’s not because I’m popular. It’s because I’m visible and I tell people that courts belong to everyone, which they do,” she explained.

Her experience highlights a finding made by the American Bar Association’s Commission on the 21st Century Judiciary that “[t]he pronounced lack of diversity in the judicial system inhibits public trust and confidence in the courts.” When individuals suffer injustice — when pay is less because of gender, or a manufacturing plant contaminates an entire town’s drinking water, or police systematically stop and frisk racial minorities — they turn to the courts to protect their rights. And when they walk through the courthouse doors, they need to be assured they will get a fair shake — that their arguments will be seriously considered and understood, and their claims resolved without bias or favor.  AFJ established Building the Bench because our democracy is stronger when the judiciary is comprised of judges whose backgrounds speak to the full breadth of the American experience.

Bringing that kind of accessibility to the court means rethinking the existing criteria for judges, including assumptions about who they are, where they’re from, where they went to law school, and what form their professional legal experience has taken. “The Court needs every experience there,” Judge Donald said. “When we look solely at the people who come from select perspectives, we get a skewed perspective.”

“All of us bring the sum total of our lived experiences to the bench,” she continued. “It is the amalgamation of those lived experiences that I think help us produce a better quality of justice.” Authorities contemplating judicial nominations should think broadly — “not just doing check boxes” — to ensure that they are “bringing America to the bench.”

The result will be that “people understand the perspectives that women, and poor people, and people in government service face.”

A truly diverse judiciary not only reflects the demographic diversity of the nation in its composition; it must also comprise experienced nominees who have advocated for clients of varying backgrounds in previous roles, and who encompass a range of socioeconomic, sexual, geographic, and racial identities.

Creating that diversity on the court requires deconstructing many of the barriers that steer Black women and other underrepresented groups away from that path — including psychological barriers that can cause self-sabotage. “”I would say for every person on this call who may be a woman, a person of color: Don’t take yourself out of the running!” insisted Dean Holley-Walker.

“I think so often when someone says, ‘Oh, you know, you would be great as a judge,’ often the response that you hear back is, ‘Oh, I could never do that!’” she said. “I think a lot of times all it takes is saying, ‘You know what? Yeah, that is something that I would think about.” Beginning those discussions and that networking can make a big difference.

“If you don’t step up for yourself first, a lot of times other people won’t step up for you.”

That’s exactly the kind of work Building the Bench set out to accomplish. As it stands, Justice Nelson is one of only eight Black women on state supreme courts out of 344 justices. Judge Donald is one of only four Black women filling the 794 seats on federal courts. How do we make sure that women of color are no longer the exception, but a welcome and expected part of our court system? Discussions like this are one of the first steps.

Watch the full hour-long panel below, and be sure to stay tuned for more events from May I Approach? series: