Racial/Gender Differences in Qualifications for Appointment to the Federal Bench

A new study by scholars at the University of Louisville, Yale University, and Oregon State University finds that women of color appointed to the federal judiciary typically have a greater depth of professional experiences and are more likely to have previously served as a judge than their White male counterparts.

Researchers examined the professional backgrounds of district and circuit court judges appointed to the bench from the Clinton through the Trump presidencies — a period in which 97 women of color were confirmed to the federal bench and in which 54 percent of individuals confirmed as federal judges were White men.

The study found that nonwhite women are generally nominated to the federal courts earlier in their careers than other appointees. They found that White men average 2.58 “types” of experience, usually including a stint in private practice, and typically practice law for about 25 years before they are nominated and confirmed to the bench, while women of color average about 2.98 types of professional experiences and 21.5 years of experience. Fifteen percent of White men had only one type of experience — a rate three times greater than that of women of color. At the same time, 9.7 percent of women of color had five or more varieties of professional experience — the highest percentage among the groups — compared with just 4 percent of White men, according to the study.

The study demonstrated that White men typically require experience in private practice and judicial clerkships to receive a nomination to the bench. The researchers found that 93 percent of White men had worked in private practice, compared with 79 percent for women of color. The study revealed evidence that judicial experience is often a prerequisite for nonwhite women to be nominated and confirmed to the federal bench.

“Our study uncovers clear evidence that women of color are being evaluated differently than their White colleagues for appointments to the federal bench,” said Allison Harris, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University and a co-author of the study. “For White men, the norm focuses on clerkships and experience in lucrative private practice. By contrast, the norm for nonwhite women appears to emphasize having longer resumes and prior experience as a state or local judge, meaning that they need to prove themselves by going beyond the baseline standard for White men.”

Dr. Harris explained that “we can’t fully explain why women of color appear to be getting fast-tracked to federal judgeships, but it could be caused by the leaky pipeline of nonwhite women opting out of the legal profession at various career stages due to the barriers they face. In order to maintain representation of nonwhite women on the federal bench, presidents need to find nominees with different kinds of experience than the norms for White men and might end up choosing appointees at earlier stages of their careers.”

The full study, “Better Too Much Than Not Enough”: The Nomination of Women of Color to the Federal Bench,” was published on the website of the Journal of Women, Politics & Policy. It may be accessed here.

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