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Diversity on the Bench


If President Barack Obama wants to make the Supreme Court more diverse, he has a wider range of options than any of his predecessors. When Ronald Reagan was president, only about 40 women served on the federal bench, the most common source of Supreme Court nominees.

Today, more than 200 women hold federal judgeships, along with 88 African-Americans, 60 Hispanics and eight Asian Americans.

All but four of the 110 Supreme Court justices in the nation’s history have been white men. Two are African-American men, Clarence Thomas and the late Thurgood Marshall, and two are white women, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor.

There has never been a Hispanic, Asian American or Native American justice.

Ginsburg is the only female justice at the moment and most of the candidates whom Obama is considering are women.

The president also has a much wider range of experienced lawyers to draw from than Reagan did when he reached down to a midlevel appeals court in Arizona to nominate O’Connor.

“The pool was simply not as broad or as deep as it is now,” said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center.

Before Jimmy Carter came to the White House in 1977, presidents beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt had put just eight women on the federal bench. Carter added 40 female federal judges in four years, including Ginsburg.

Today, 212 full-time federal judges are women, more than a quarter of the federal judiciary.

State Supreme Court judges — many of them elected — have an even higher share of women. Nearly a third of the judges on those courts are women. On 22 out of 53 courts, women make up at least 40 percent of the judges. (The list includes Washington, D.C., as well as two high courts each for Oklahoma and Texas.)

The rise in the number of women as judges reflects steady growth in the number of female lawyers. About a third of lawyers, as well as roughly half of law school graduates, are women.

“I wouldn’t say the doors have swung open as fully as we would like,” Greenberger said. “Nonetheless, there are superb women in the judiciary, academia and private practice.”

The numbers are smaller for minorities. Of the 793 full-time federal trial and appeals court judges, 88 are African-American, 60 are Hispanic and eight are Asian American. There are no Native American judges.

Again, Carter brought much greater diversity to federal courts than any of his predecessors. In the 16 years beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy, presidents filled 21 judgeships with African-Americans. The total double counts Marshall, who was made an appeals court judge by Kennedy and then put on the Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson.

Carter nominated 37 African-American judges in his single term. He named 16 Hispanics, more than twice as many as previous presidents combined.

George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him significantly raised the number of women and minorities in the judiciary. Nearly 30 percent of judges nominated by Clinton and more than 20 percent of Bush’s picks were women.

African-Americans made up 16 percent and Hispanics accounted for 7 percent of Clinton-nominated judges. The numbers were 8 percent and 10 percent, respectively, for Bush.

Sometimes, though, a president’s desire to increase diversity gives way to other political concerns. In 2005, Bush nominated a woman, Harriet Miers, to take O’Connor’s spot. But Miers withdrew from consideration under criticism from the president’s conservative allies.

By The Numbers: Presidents and the total number of judges they named, broken down by women and minorities, dating from the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the first to nominate a woman to be a federal judge.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: 184 judges, 1 woman.

Harry Truman: 131 judges, 1 woman, 1 African-American.

Dwight Eisenhower: 165 judges.

John F. Kennedy: 125 judges, 1 woman, 3 African-Americans, 1 Hispanic.

Lyndon Johnson: 167 judges, 3 women (including the first African-American woman), 9 African-Americans, 3 Hispanics.

Richard Nixon: 220 judges, 1 woman, 6 African-Americans, 2 Hispanics, 1 Asian American.

Gerald Ford: 62 judges, 1 woman, 3 African-Americans, 1 Hispanic, 2 Asian Americans.

Jimmy Carter: 258 judges, 40 women (including the first Hispanic woman), 37 African-Americans, 16 Hispanics, 3 Asian Americans, 1 Native American.

Ronald Reagan: 358 judges, 29 women, 7 African-Americans, 14 Hispanics, 2 Asian Americans.

George H.W. Bush: 187 judges, 36 women, 11 African-Americans, 8 Hispanics.

Bill Clinton: 367 judges, 104 women (including the first Asian American woman), 61 African-Americans, 23 Hispanics, 5 Asian Americans, 1 Native American.

George W. Bush: 321 judges, 71 women, 23 African-Americans, 30 Hispanics, 4 Asian Americans.

Source: Federal Judicial Center

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