When I started practicing criminal trial law, forty years ago, (ouch!) I recall that in my judicial district of about 60 judges, only two were women. In the prosecutor’s criminal division there was only one woman out of about twenty male prosecutors. As they say, it was a different world then. The days when a male judge could pull out the bottom drawer on his desk and spit into it, or the sexist jokes told back in chambers in front of female lawyers, or the judge who was so intent on dictating an opinion, he followed his female court reporter into the bathroom—and didn’t see anything wrong about it.
Luckily for everyone, the numbers have changed. (Even internationally) See: https://www.americasquarterly.org/women-in-robes
In Minnesota, 40+% of judges in the state are female. That compares to about 30% in the Dakotas and only 20% in neighboring Wisconsin.
What’s the big deal?
- Unlike other professions, the practice of law is really a people business. Of course, there are laws and rules and courts that try to impose some order in life. But at it’s heart, being a lawyer is about solving people problems—some of them life-threatening. The job is so difficult, we need all the brains and experience we can get. Both male and female judges bring different skills to the job.
- Particularly at the trial level courts, it’s important to match the composition of the bench to the clientele the courts serve. Although few females are involved in the criminal system, many women are involved in civil lawsuits. Some cases benefit from a different experience in life. Sexual assault cases come to mind, for instance. Beyond that, when people come into a court (most of them for the first and last time), it’s important they feel the judges, in some fashion, mirror the groups they come from. Both male and female judges encourage the acceptance of decisions.
- These numbers also lead to a wider diversity beyond gender. Race, nationality, background, all give more to the courts and the community. In the criminal area, most accused people are African American. I can’t generalize, but many former black clients of mine felt, at least, there was one other person in the courtroom who may be fair.
- This entire movement reminds me of why my days as a draftee in the U.S. Army were so valuable. Today, we have a volunteer army that doesn’t attract as wide a variety of Americans as the draft did. Here were the men who slept in my bay (dorm): a Southern black man from Alabama. Next to his bed was Big Red, a giant of a red-haired man from Alabama. The Jewish guy from Brooklyn was next in line. Bill, a college grad and journalist from upstate New York. Dave came from California and was a surfer while not managing a McDonald’s. And Jared who came from Texas and was an oil roustabout. Finally, Deece, a dark black man from Newark, who scared everyone until he got talking about his girlfriend—then he cried. I learned how each American brought different things into my life. Our judicial system is the same. Female judges are just the start of a broader inclusion of people.