Gender, Race and the Judiciary @MSU Law Symposium

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The first panel at the MSU Symposium on “Gender and the Legal Profession’s Pipeline to Power” is organized around the theme of “Gender, Race and the Judiciary.”

Hannah Brenner (MSU) and Renee Knake (MSU) are presenting their work on gender bias in media coverage of the nominations to the United States Supreme Court.   Their reseach suggests, among other things, that physical appearance and family life (i.e., parental status) were more likely to be mentioned in coverage of female nominees than male nominees.  Professors Brenner and Knake employ content analysis in their work.  This is a methodology that is textually-based (i.e., looks at newspaper articles) but is both both qualitative and quantitative.  It’s a methodology that other law professors might fruitfully employ.  I was struck by Professor Knake’s concluding observations that explicit bias in the legal profession has been replaced by a more subtle bias in discussions of motherhood, competence and bias.

Keith Bybee (Syracuse) asks “What Do We Talk About When We Talk Abut Gender Imbalance on the Bench?”  We need to have an accurate count of men and women and also understand how the structure of debates about gender balance itself might function as an impediment to making a positive case for the need for more women on the bench.  What is that structure?  Professor Bybee’s focus is on the “twin tropes” of judges as impartial arbiters vs. judges as politically-motivated policymakers.  He says that one common understanding of impartiality is as something divorced from individual experience. Professor Bybee suggests that pressure should be placed on the gatekeepers of judicial nominees to ask them why they think that women should not be appointed in greater numbers.

Sally Kenney (Newcomb College, Tulane) is sharing her work on “Gender at Work: The First Women on State Supreme Courts.”  Professor Kenney is attempting to uncover the histories of Florence Allen (Ohio Supreme Court, 1922) and Rosalie Wall (Minnesota Supreme Court 1977), Rose Bird (California 1974 [?]).  Study gender as a social process not sex as a variable.  Women’s cases differ considerably from each other.  We need to take an intersectional approach to approach in which gender is not an all-or-nothing lens for understanding the experience of women on state courts.  Gender progress is, unfortunately, reversible.  The substantial presence of women in law schools is not translating into female judges.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig (Iowa) and Amber Fricke (Iowa, JD expected 2012) are presenting their work on “The Inexorable Zero:” Female Judges of Color.”  They explain the need for more women of color on the bench .  Only 8.67% of all active (non-senior status) federal judges are women of color.  They explain that the presence of women of color in the judiciary can have a salutary effect on other judges, is consistent to a commitment to democratic participation of all citizens, and instills trust in the court system.  Professor Onwuachi-Willig and Ms. Fricke’s work pays careful attention to the words of judges — both women of color themselves and those who appreciate the experience that men and women of color bring to the judiciary.

-Bridget Crawford

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