WASHINGTON – Four legal experts discussed the impact of diversity in U.S. courts Tuesday,as the Senate debated Judge Sonia Sotomayor's impending confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Panelists said having white-male dominated courts is a norm that is rarely questioned. “Any time that you deviate from the white norm or the male norm you are challenging neutrality,” said Sylvia Lazos,a professor of constitutional law at William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada,Las Vegas.
The panel members,a judge,two law professors and a legal researcher,argued that diversity in courts leads to a more transparent and inclusive decision-making process.
This process can ultimately produce better decision making that “is as sound as it can be because it's been as informed as possible by the variety of perspectives that exist in our legal community,” said Sherrilyn Ifill,a professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law.
Panelists said Sotomayor will offer a unique perspective on the Supreme Court bench. Due to her Puerto Rican descent,she will be the first “colonial subject” on the U.S. Supreme Court who might take an interest in the issue of citizens of U.S. territories,such as Puerto Rico,who are not able to vote in U.S. presidential elections,Lazos said.
Unlike Justice Clarence Thomas,Sotomayor is likely to have a positive view on affirmative action,Lazos said,since she has admitted that this policy helped her get into Princeton.
Unlike Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,who talked about discrimination she had suffered as a woman and a Jew at her confirmation hearing,Sotomayor did not have that type of discussion about her experiences as a Latina. Ifill said the reason for this opportunity loss is the isolation of the wise Latina statement from Sotomayor's speeches.
“It was a deliberate decision to isolate that one sentence from her speeches and to use it to put judge Sotomayor on the defensive,” Ifill said.
The panelists said that,in most cases,the presence of minority judges on the bench does not affect the outcome of judicial decisions. Judge Theodore McKee,of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals,said rulings in 95 percent of court cases are based on Supreme Court precedent or statute.
The only cases in which diversity on the bench might affect the outcome,said Lazos,who has studied the subject,are those in which judges,as equals,exchange ideas in “a nonthreatening nonconfrontational way.”
She said that a minority judge is likely to make a difference in outcomes in racial discrimination cases in a hostile work environment.
Lazos said the U.S. is making constant progress in racial diversity.
About 11 percent of federal judges are African Americans,who make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population. About 7.6 percent of federal judges are Latinos,who make up 15 percent of the population. Asian-Americans make up about 1 percent of judges and are 1.5 percent of the population. The federal courts include no American Indian judges.
Women make up more than a quarter of federal judges and about a fifth of federal appellate judges. But Ciara Torres-Spelliscy,counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law,said women in some appellate courts are underrepresented. The 8th Circuit has only one female judge,and the 10th and the 11th Circuits have two female judges each.
She said two state supreme courts,those of Idaho and Indiana,are all male.