Obama's judicial picks favor women, minorities

Posted: October 02, 2011

WASHINGTON - President Obama is moving at a historic pace to try to diversify the federal judiciary: Nearly three of every four people he has gotten confirmed to the federal bench are women or minorities. He is the first president who hasn't selected a majority of white males for lifetime judgeships.

More than 70 percent of Obama's confirmed judicial nominees during his first two years were "nontraditional," or nominees who were not white males. That far exceeds the percentages in the two-term administrations of Bill Clinton (48.1 percent) and George W. Bush (32.9 percent), said Sheldon Goldman, author of the authoritative book Picking Federal Judges.

"It is an absolutely remarkable diversity achievement," said Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who is counting judges only once, even if they fit more than one category.

The White House has recently been touting its efforts to diversify the federal bench.

Obama won Senate confirmation of the first Latina to the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And with the confirmation of Justice Elena Kagan, he increased the number of women on the court to three for the first time.

His administration also nominated and won confirmation of the first openly gay man to a federal judgeship: former Clinton administration official J. Paul Oetken, to an opening in New York City.

The first openly gay federal judge was Deborah A. Batts in New York City, nominated by Clinton in 1994.

Of the 98 Obama nominees confirmed, the administration says 21 percent are black, 11 percent are Hispanic, and 7 percent are Asian American; 47 percent are women.

Of the 322 judges confirmed during Bush's presidency, 18 percent were minorities and 22 percent were female. Of the 372 judges confirmed during Clinton's terms, 25 percent were minorities and 29 percent were women. In these figures, some judges fit into more than one category.

Last month, the Senate confirmed the first African American woman to sit on the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Bernice Donald. Earlier, she was the first African American woman elected as a judge in Tennessee, the first appointed as a federal bankruptcy judge in the nation, and the first confirmed as a U.S. district judge in Tennessee.

Obama also has doubled the number of Asian Americans on the federal bench, including adding Denny Chin to the New York-based Second Circuit as the only active Asian federal appeals judge. Fourteen Asian American federal judges are on the 810-judge roster.

"Obama has nominated as many as were sitting on the bench when he was inaugurated," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who wrote about the increasing diversity on the federal bench in the Washington University Law Review.

For more than 140 years, no females or minorities were federal judges.

The first female federal appellate judge was Florence Allen, who gained her seat on the Sixth Circuit court in 1934. The first female U.S. District Court judge was Burnita Shelton Matthews, who took the bench in Washington in 1950. William Henry Hastie Jr. was the first African American U.S. District Court judge, sitting in the Virgin Islands in 1937 before being elevated to the Philadelphia-based Third Circuit in 1949.

Reynaldo G. Garza became the first Hispanic federal judge when he was appointed to the U.S. District Court in Texas in 1961, and Herbert Choy became the first Asian American federal judge when he was appointed to the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit in 1971.

Those who track diversity on the federal bench are pleased with Obama's progress but want more voices from all of America's communities in the federal courts. Obama has nominated three other openly gay judicial nominees, as well as Arvo Mikkanen, who would be the only Native American active judge on the federal bench if confirmed for an Oklahoma seat.

The makeup of the federal bench could be a major issue during the Senate, House, and presidential elections in 2012.

Obama basically has until the end of this year to get as many of his judicial nominees confirmed as possible, because it is unlikely that a highly partisan Senate will confirm many judges with a presidential election looming in November 2012.

According to the Federal Judicial Center, there are 94 vacancies in the federal courts, with 55 nominees awaiting Senate action.

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