Sunday, September 25, 2011

Women on the Federal Bench

Sandra Day O’Connor sworn in, September 25, 1981.
Today is the 30th anniversary of Sandra Day O'Connor being sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice.

The appointment of the first woman to the Supreme Court was very big news back in 1981, when I was a law student. But most of today's law students have always had at least one woman one the Supreme Court. Today's 1Ls are starting law school with three female justices on the Court. (Beloit's Mindset List annually offers reminders of how a younger generation's experience differs from the last's.)

So I thought this might be a good occasion to offer some stats about the representation of women on the federal bench. I'm using a fascinating database from the Federal Judicial Center, The Biographical Directory of Federal Judges.

First, how many women did Justice O'Connor join when she was sworn in?

51 women had been been commissioned before Sept. 25, 1981. Only 23 were still serving. (That is, their commission date was before that date, but their termination date was after it.)

And what were the corresponding numbers for men?

2023 men had been commissioned, and 619 were still serving.

President Reagan made history by appointing the first woman to the Supreme Court. What was his record throughout the federal courts?

court women men
U.S. Supreme Court 1 3
courts of appeal 6 77
all federal courts 30 334
An important part of the historical context is that women were a minority in the legal profession. 1972 was the first year when women were over 10% of law school enrollment nationally, so in the 1980s there'd wasn't as large a pool of experienced female lawyer from whom to select judges as there is today.

Speaking of today, what is the makeup of our federal bench now?

All Sitting Federal Judges (including those on senior status)

Race or Ethnicitywomen men
African American 38 81
American Indian 0 1
Asian American 6 10
Hispanic 23 56
White 208 861
Total 278 1015

Photo credit: National Archives Today's Document blog, Sept. 25, 2011.

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