State News
5:08 pm
Tue March 11, 2014

UPDATED: Florida Bar Task Force Examines 'Concerning' Minority Judge Numbers

Florida Bar President Eugene Pettis
Florida Bar President Eugene Pettis
Credit The Florida Bar

With more than 50 vacancies on the boards that nominate Florida judges, a task force is trying to answer the question of how to make the judiciary more diverse. The group aims to help reverse what the Florida Bar calls a “concerning” recent trend: that the state’s judicial nominators have been looking less and less like the overall population.

Just a few years out of law school, lawyer Kristen Hanna is president of the Tallahassee Barristers Association, a predominantly African-American lawyers’ group. Hanna says she’s honored to have been nominated to lead, but when it comes to tossing her own hat in the ring, she’s still hesitant.

“Anything that’s seen as bragging or trying to promote yourself tends to have a stigma attached to it,” she says.

Hanna says that’s even though many female lawyers realize their humility can get in the way of professional success.

“I actually just had a conversation with a group of girlfriends about this same issue and it’s something that we all laughed about but that we all realized we need to overcome,” she says.

It wouldn’t surprise her, she says, if an aversion to self-promotion partially explains why less than 19 percent of Florida’s judges are women, according to the American Judicature Society.  

Florida Bar President Eugene Pettis, the first African-American to hold the post, convened the diversity task force to try to learn why more women and minorities are not nominated to be judges. Bar figures show African-Americans preside over less than 7 percent of Florida’s courtrooms. Hispanic judges wield fewer than 1-in-10 gavels. Pettis says when courts don’t look like the public, there’s a risk of losing respect and trust. Plus, Florida law requires commissions that nominate judges to reflect the population.

“If we are committed to that, then we need to be intentional in our compliance with that, and it requires that we are conscious of that goal throughout the merit appointment process,” Pettis says.

Judicial nominating commissions submit names to the governor, who has the final say. Academic research suggests that more diverse commissions produce more diverse judges. But the reasons for that are complicated, says Stetson University law professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy. For one study, she interviewed judicial nominators in several states, including Florida.

“It takes some self-reflection to ask the question, ‘Do I find that this would be a good judicial candidate because of their innate qualities or because they fit an archetype, if you will, of what I think a judge looks like,’” she says.

Torres-Spelliscy says people genuinely believe they’re fair-minded.  But research suggests an implicit bias might be lurking in their subconscious. She says she saw that bias firsthand when an elementary school teacher showed her class a photo of the 1950s U.S. Supreme Court.

“And none of us picked up on the fact that they were all white and all male until she showed us a picture of what was then the current Supreme Court, which had Sandra Day O’Connor and Thurgood Marshall on it, an African-American,” she says. “And so I think the bias that judges should be white and male is one that is picked up very early on in childhood and so it’s very hard to dislodge even as an adult.”

She says nominating commissions should make sure they reach out to minority and women’s associations to make sure their members know about judicial vacancies.

And Bar President Pettis says it’s important for qualified lawyers to raise their hands.

“I can’t tell you the number of people that I hear saying, ‘Gene, you’re right. I’m applying. We need to apply,’ and that needs to be the commitment every year every single time without there being a special call to action,” he says.

The task force is expected to issue its recommendations in late May.

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Below is the original version of this story published on March 11:

A Florida Bar task force is examining why more minority candidates are not applying to be judges or serve on the committees that nominate them. The law licensing organization says the percentage of minority judge nominators has dropped off steeply in recent years.

The 11-member diversity task force met in Fort Lauderdale Tuesday. In three months they’re expected to issue a report addressing how the Bar and governor can better make the judiciary reflect the population of Florida.

Stetson University law professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy has studied judicial diversity.

"The point of all of this is not to create a judiciary that looks like a  Benetton ad," she says.

Rather, she says founding father Alexander Hamilton had it right about the judicial branch:

“They have neither the sword nor the purse. All that they really do have is the respect of the public, which creates the rule of law in the first place."

And she says that respect can be lost by having a bench that doesn’t resemble the public. After interviewing judicial nominators in several states, she says the best ways to increase applicant diversity are better minority outreach and increasing judges’ salaries.