As movements like Black Lives Matter draw increasing attention to the way the U.S. judicial system treats racial minorities, less attention has been paid to the minority judges who sit on the other side of the courtroom. But study results released Monday show that minority judges in state supreme courts are less likely to be re-elected than their white counterparts — a situation that some say could lead to a pool of fewer judges who are able to understand the lives of the people who sit before them.
While white judges have 90 percent re-election rates, black judges have a rate of 80 percent and Latino judges just 67 percent, according to the study conducted by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
And as judicial candidates spend increasing amounts of money on campaigns, there are concerns that minority candidates may not have access to the same kind of financial resources as their white counterparts.
“We had a lot of anecdotal evidence that there were diverse justices losing their seats” on state supreme courts, said Billy Corriher, the center’s director of research for legal progress and one of the authors of the report. “In this study we wanted to quantify that and see if that was happening on a systemic level. And we found that it was.”
A separate 2009 study from the American Judicature Society found that of 340 state supreme court justices in the United States, only 10 percent are nonwhite.
States select judges in different ways. In some, such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, judges are appointed, while in others, including Alabama, Texas and Ohio, they must run for re-election, according to the American Bar Association. The Center for American Progress study focused on states with contested judicial elections.
The amount of money spent on judicial election campaigns has been rising over the past few decades. A study published in 2010 found that campaign spending for state judicial elections has more than doubled, from $83.3 million from 1990 through 1999 to $206.9 million in 2000 through 2009. The practice of electing judges could affect the numbers of minority candidates if some of them don’t have access to wealthy donors to mount competitive campaigns, noted a separate report by the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
According to the Census Bureau, more than half the U.S. population will belong to a minority group by 2044. Having fewer minorities in the judiciary means that the divide between who sits on the bench and who stands in front of it will continue to widen, some experts say.
“I think that having a judiciary that reflects what our population looks like is really pretty important,” said Kevin Burke, a district court judge in Minnesota and a past president of the American Judges Association. “Having people whose life experience is entirely different than yours can make other judges better at what they do.”