Taryn Phaneuf Jun. 29, 2016, 10:57am


WASHINGTON – New data on the makeup of state courts reveals that white men fill most judicial seats in Texas.

In fact, nationally, they’re represented twice as much on state judiciaries as they are in the general public, according a report called The Gavel Gap.

This is the first time attributes of state court judges have been collected and analyzed. The report revealed an unexpected result, with skewed representation for courts in all 50 states and Washington D.C. The report issued a grade based on how well the courts' makeup matched the population. Texas received a "D." In all, 26 states received failing scores. The authors hope the findings will show states that there’s work to do to get more men and women of color, as well as white women, into judges robes.

Courts that look more like the general population could address internal and external issues in the system, co-author Tracey George, a law and political science professor at Vanderbilt University, told the Southeast Texas Record

Albert Yoon, a professor of law and economics at the University of Toronto, co-authored the report, which was done with support from the American Constitution Society.

Internally, judges who have different experiences that allow them to understand community issues in a deeper way add value to the courts. Panels that include multiple judges would benefit from the diversity of background, George said. Externally, the public is often skeptical of courts that are dominated by white men in a society that’s 50 percent female and increasingly non-white.

“It just makes the system look like it’s rigged,” George said. 

She added that people may perceive that a judge’s background makes him or her biased in a case, but that perception isn’t supported by evidence.

 “It’s really about making someone a better decision maker, not a biased one," George said.

The database includes 10,000 judges on trial courts of general jurisdiction. This excludes the many courts of limited jurisdiction in the state. Still, 50 percent of those judgeships are filled by white men who actually represent only 21 percent of the state’s population. The rate of white women judges is closer to reality: They fill 23 percent of judgeships and comprise 22 percent of the population.

Meanwhile, Texas’ population is described as “majority minority.” Men of color make up 29 percent of the population, but fill only 14 percent of judgeships. Women of color account for 28 percent of the population, but only 12 percent of judges.

The data ranked Texas 22nd out of 51. The results of the analysis surprised George, who has spent a lot of time studying federal courts, where demographic information is more readily available. Because there have been gains in representation on federal courts, where power and influence can have a greater effect on appointments, George expected a different picture to emerge from the numbers.

“I expected to see, frankly, better numbers than in the federal judiciary,” she said. “I had viewed state courts as potentially better opportunities to groups outside the power structure.”

The data on women’s representation as judges especially surprised her because previous studies show women would be more willing to take a lower salary (like the one that accompanies a judgeship) in exchange for better hours and working in public service. That butts heads with the other researched truth that white women and people of color are less likely to run for office. In many states, including Texas, that’s how judges are selected.

Because races in Texas are partisan, George thinks political parties should do more to identify candidates with more diverse backgrounds and attributes who would make good judges and help them get on the ballot. That should be in addition to an improved pipeline that includes law schools and mentors.

“If you want to see women on the bench, then you need to facilitate their move all along the pipeline that leads to that outcome,” George said. “That means you’ve got to ensure you have women going to law school in sufficient numbers, and when they graduate they know what they need to do and seek to do the things that increase the opportunity to become a judge.”

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