by Kristine Kippins
In celebration of International Women’s Day, ACS highlights the progress made over the last four years to diversify our federal judiciary.
According to the White House, President Obama has taken great steps to put more women on the bench. With two vacancies on the Supreme Court, Obama filled both spots with women, including the first Latina Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. He appointed the second and third openly gay women to the district courts, Alison Nathan and Pamela Chen. Chen is the first openly gay Asian American on the federal bench. Six district courts have their first female judge ever – AK, E.D. Cal., S.D. Iowa, ME, VT, and Wyo. Shelly Dick will be number seven once installed in the Middle District of Louisiana. Five states can now claim their first female circuit court judge – Alaska, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Virginia, and West Virginia. And the first Asian American woman to a circuit court, Jacqueline Nguyen, now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Overall, Obama has placed 74 women on the federal bench, 42 percent of all confirmations, and that same statistic carries through to the percentage of female nominees pending in the Senate. At this point in his presidency, George W. Bush could only boast that 22 percent of his confirmed judges being women.
Progress, however, is rarely easy. Senate Republicans bent on obstructionism continue to roadblock diversifying the judiciary. Last Congress, a third of the nominees rejected by either their Republican home-state senators or the caucus at-large were women: Victoria Nourse, Caitlin Halligan, Natasha Perdew Silas and Linda Walker. During the 113th Congress, all but one nominee awaiting blue slips from their Republican home-state senators are women. It is worth noting that the other nominee is an openly gay African American man. Sen. Heller (R-Nev.) has taken more than a year to return a blue slip for Elissa Cadish. Today she withdrew her nomination to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada. Wednesday, and for the second time, only Sen. Murkowski (R-Alaska) broke with her caucus to support ending a filibuster of Caitlin Halligan, the president’s nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Halligan was rated unanimously well qualified by the ABA. Judge Patricia Wald, the D.C. Circuit’s first female judge and chief judge, agreed with the ABA. Had Halligan been confirmed, half of the judges on the D.C. Circuit would be women – a historic milestone, as the first time a federal appellate court has had the same number of men and women.
For all these gains, the National Women’s Law Center notes we have far yet to go to bring equity in the federal judiciary. Approximately 30 percent of federal judges are women.