State supreme courts, which sit at the top of state judiciaries, don’t have gender parity and don’t reflect the racial or ethnic composition of the communities they serve, according to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.
“Across the country, states’ most powerful courts are overwhelmingly white and male, unlike the communities they serve,” said Alicia Bannon, Managing Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and a coauthor of the report. “Our judicial system loses credibility with the public when the judges making the rulings don’t reflect the diversity of the people affected by those rulings. Our courts can’t function without the public’s trust.”
The authors of State Supreme Court Diversity analyzed the demographics of more than 1,600 people who served as justices in the states’ highest courts between 1960 and 2019. Among their findings for that period:
13 states have not seated a person of color as a state supreme court justice
24 states currently lack a justice of color on their state supreme court bench
White men now make up less than a third of the U.S. population but more than half (56 percent) of state supreme court justices
Women make up roughly half the U.S. population but hold 36 percent of state supreme court seats
People of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population but hold 15 percent of state supreme court seats
Over the past twenty years, state supreme courts have become less reflective of the nation’s increasingly diverse population. In 1996, there were 63 percent fewer justices of color on state high court benches than would be predicted based on their representation in the general population. In 2017, that gap was 66 percent.
In addition, the authors supplemented their data with secondary sources that analyzed the pre-1960 period. They found that 18 states have never seated a black justice on a state supreme court.