The importance of the judiciary cannot be overstated as its primary role continues to be to defend and uphold the United States Constitution and ensure that the rule of law prevails, said Congressional Black Caucus Chair G.K. Butterfield.
The remarks from the North Carolina Democrat came after a report by the Center for American Progress argued that the lack of diversity among judges who sit on the nation’s courts is hindering fairness and the perception of fairness in the judiciary.
“The role of the judiciary is to deliver justice and to do it evenly and fairly,” Butterfield, 68, said.
“There are also barriers in the judiciary. Access to justice is being denied every day in courtrooms across America,” he said.
“These barriers must be eliminated, excessive arrests and excessive charging, drug offenses clogging the system, ineffective counsel, crowded dockets, jury pool and jury selection, judges with extreme political views that impact judicial discretion, unnecessary active sentences, inadequate probations departments, mass incarceration, and expungement.”
The CAP report, released on Oct. 26, noted that disparities in the re-election rates for elected judges of color raise alarming questions about how judicial elections affect diversity on the bench, a problem that will only become more pronounced as demographic shifts continue their trends.
The report offers recommendations for reforms that could help foster diversity on the bench, such as public financing for judicial campaigns and programs that would expand the pipeline of diverse lawyers who could become judges.
“The role of the federal judiciary and its decisions are often examined, but far less focus and study are directed to the role of state courts and their impact and influence on our lives, and this report aims to change that reality,” said Michele L. Jawando, the vice president of Legal Progress at the CAP and co-author of the report.
“Our courts are supposed to be fair arbiters of justice for all, and our report raises serious concerns about the influence of money in politics specifically in judicial elections and the effects of that influence in inhibiting diversity in our courts,” Jawando said in a news release.
In many states, diverse justices were appointed to the bench, only to lose their seats in the next election. The CAP report examined one of the reasons for the discrepancies by looking at how judicial elections and the rising costs of judicial campaigns keep individuals of color off the bench, the authors said.
For example, since 2000, white incumbents have had a 90 percent re-election rate, compared with 80 percent for Black justices and a mere 66 percent for Latino justices.
The report also examined how that glaring lack of diversity calls into question the overall fairness of the justice system.
“Given the country’s demographic shifts and the important issues that come before state courts such as the rights to vote and to a decent education, family disputes, and the vast majority of criminal cases who sits on these courts matters,” said Billy Corriher, the director of research for Legal Progress and another co-author of the report.
“While we expect our courts and our judges to be fair, we should also expect our judiciary to reflect the communities it serves.”
Communities across America must have judges presiding over cases that reflect the diverse makeup of their communities, Butterfield said, adding that judges must come from the “real world” and understand the racial and cultural differences that make America great.
“Put a different way, judicial diversity promotes impartiality by ensuring that no single viewpoint or perspective or set of values can persistently dominate legal decision making,” Butterfield said.
The CBC chair noted that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has commented that a “system of justice is the richer for the diversity of background and experience of its participants.”
Also, Justice Lewis Powell stated “a member of a previously excluded group can bring insights to the Court that the rest of its members lack,” and legal scholar Sherrilyn Ifill asserted that “racial diversity among judges is a critical means of achieving cultural pluralism in judicial decision-making.”
Butterfield, who served on the North Carolina Supreme Court and was defeated in a partisan election in 2002, said elected judiciaries are generally less diverse than their appointed federal counterparts and thus one can assert there is a lack of a variety of experiences informing the deliberative process.
“We must continue the debate about the most effective method of judicial selection,” he said. “We must continue to explain why dirty money in judicial elections are damaging to the independence of the judiciary.”