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NATIONAL NEWS | summer 2009

What a Difference A Latina Makes
Gender and ethnicity can’t help but inform a judge’s sensibilities.

By Carolina González

Sonia Sotomayor A “wise old Latina” is clearly different from a “wise old man.” But are they different in a way that matters when both are wearing judge’s robes?

The much-cited (and often maligned) remark in a graduation address made by U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor prompted a basic question that resonates beyond her individual nomination. How do differences in life experiences—and major identity markers such as gender, race and ethnicity—affect the decision-making of federal judges?

Not surprisingly, according to several studies and to law scholars, racial and gender identity matters most in racial and gender discrimination cases. Women and African American judges rule in favor of discrimination plaintiffs significantly more often than white men. For example, a study drawing on 20 years’ worth of cases concluded that drawing an African American judge in cases involving workplace racial harassment makes it more likely that the plaintiff will win. Curiously, the effect of having women judges rule on gender-discrimination cases is greater when they serve on panels of three judges than when they rule alone from the bench. It seems that just the presence of a woman on a small panel of judges influences the others' opinions.

Unfortunately, the numbers of women and minorities on the federal bench are still significantly fewer than in the general population. Of 798 U.S. federal judges active in June 2009, only about a quarter are women (213). The figures for African Americans are a little more encouraging: They compose 11 percent of federal judges, while they’re 13.5 percent of the general population. Asian Americans and Latinos, however—the ethnic groups growing fastest as a share of the total U.S. population—have little representation in the federal courts, 1 percent and 6 percent respectively.

According to Sylvia Lazos, a constitutional law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who recently published a study on diversity in federal courts, Sotomayor might bring a discernible difference to several types of cases other than those involving discrimination: immigrant rights, due process, language rights in schools and access to public services.

Says Lazos, “She’s particularly sensitive to poor people getting access to things they need to make it.” 

You can read the rest of this story in the Summer 2009 issue of Ms. Pick up a copy on newsstands, or have it sent to your door by joining the Ms. Community.

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