By Eric Tegethoff
Washington News Service
SEATTLE – Judges in Washington state courts are disproportionately white and male, according to a study from the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. White males are 34 percent of Washington’s population, but they make up an overwhelming majority of state judges, at 56 percent.
Tracey George, professor of law at Vanderbilt University and co-author of the The Gavel Gap study, said state courts decide 90 percent of the nation’s cases, so it’s important that the judges in those cases represent the people they make decisions for.
“Any group of people, when they decide cases, they’re always going to be effected by their experiences,” she said. “It affects how we see disputes. It affects how we understand facts. So, we want judges to have the range of backgrounds and attributes that bear on the kinds of cases they hear.”
The study found while men and women of color make up 16 and 15 percent of the state’s population, they were represented by only six and four percent of state judges, respectively. The study authors give Washington a “D” grade for the large gap in representation.
In terms of women on the bench, they’ve made greater strides in the Northwest than in other parts of the country. White women are represented at rates similar to state demographics. But despite the fact that women are graduating from law schools at the same rate as men, Liz Berry, the executive director of the Washington State Association for Justice said women are not practicing law as often.
“We’re not seeing them going into the law profession,” she said. “They’re using their law degrees for other things, like working in nonprofit sectors or working in social work, and just different jobs that aren’t necessarily legal jobs.”
Berry said it’s important to tell women early about law-practicing professions. During a recent talk at the University of Washington law school, she said many women told her they hadn’t thought about that option.
“I was speaking to them about plaintiff side of law, and they came up to me after and they said, ‘Oh, that was so fascinating, I didn’t really know that that side of law existed,'” she said. “Because a lot of the corporate firms are coming in, talking to them, and a lot of government agencies were coming in talking about joining government.”
Nationally, women of all races are 51 percent of the population, but only 30 percent of state judges. And 38 percent of Americans are people of color, but make up just 20 percent of state benches.
The full study can be read online here.