Broadening the Bench

February 8, 2014
By: Charles Lamberton

When it changed its rules last November, the Senate ushered in a new era of opportunity for judicial nominations. Now that only a simple majority is required to break filibusters on district and circuit court nominations, the time is ripe to fill a growing a number of judicial vacancies with judges who are not only exceptionally well-qualified, but who also reflect the full diversity of the legal profession.

A truly diverse judiciary is comprised of judges who have been advocates for clients across the socio-economic spectrum, seeking justice on behalf of everyday Americans. Historically, federal judges have been drawn overwhelmingly from the ranks of prosecutors and corporate lawyers. As a recent report by the AAJ details, the federal judiciary is currently lacking in judges with experience (a) working for public interest organizations; (b) as public defenders or indigent criminal defense attorneys; and (c) representing individual clients—like employees or consumers or personal injury plaintiffs—in private practice. This imbalance deprives the courts of crucial perspectives and reduces public trust in the justice system.

So now it’s time to broaden the bench. Without the threat of a filibuster, and with more than 50 judicial vacancies currently waiting for a nominee, we have an extraordinary opportunity to increase experiential diversity on the federal courts. Importantly, the responsibility for this change extends beyond the President and the Senate, and lies with all those interested in the health of our justice system. To increase the professional diversity of our courts, encourage: (a) Lawyers with public interest backgrounds to seek out and apply for federal judgeships, (b) Advocacy groups, lawyers, and others who work on judicial nominations to actively recruit judicial candidates with public interest and civil rights backgrounds, (c) State judicial selection commissions and Senators to encourage lawyers with professionally diverse backgrounds to apply for judicial vacancies, and, in recommending nominees, to consider whether a candidate’s experience would add needed professional diversity to the judiciary, and (d) President Obama to make professional diversity a priority, and to work with home-state Senators to ensure that professional diversity improves across the entire federal judiciary.