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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The lack of gender diversity on the federal bench seems to be an "anomaly" because since the 1980s more women have joined the legal profession, more women have entered law schools in recent years and women continue to apply when openings are available.
But women still lag behind with 328 on the federal bench, compared to 442 men, according to the Federal Judicial Center website. The imbalance is more obvious in Iowa. No women on the Supreme Court, none in the Southern District and only one in the Northern District. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Iowa, has one woman, the only one ever appointed.
U.S. Magistrate Celeste Bremer of the Southern District said the only conclusion she can reach after being on the bench 26 years is that it hasn't been important enough to those who make the recommendations.
"It's not that there is a lack of talented, experience women or enough women in the pool," Bremer said. "I think women have made themselves available. So, how do we change that? We have to make it important to the state senators."
Advocates working to bring gender equity to the bench remain optimistic in light of the recent Senate confirmation of three women to two federal courts in New York and Arkansas, and the recommendations Sen. Tom Harkin made of three women to fill the vacancy in the Southern District.
Debra Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Infinity Project based in Minnesota, said that's why four years ago the project was created to bring awareness for the importance of gender equity to the 8th Circuit, which includes Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Arkansas.
The project, housed at the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, started with four volunteers, including Fitzpatrick, who were "shocked and appalled" by the gender statistics.
"The numbers of women judges in the state courts have increased over the years but as you move up into the higher courts, there are fewer and fewer," Fitzpatrick said.
The statistics for federal courts:
-Associate Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan makes the third women among the nine justices for the first time in history, which is still only one-third of the members of that court. Only four of the 112 justices ever to serve have been women.
-49 of 162 active judges in the 13 federal courts of appeal are women. In the individual courts, only one woman has been appointed to the 8th Circuit and one woman currently serves on the 10th Circuit. In the 3rd Circuit, 15 percent of the judges are women, and 23 percent of the judges are women in the 4th Circuit.
-30 percent of the active district or trial court judges are women.
Fitzpatrick said volunteers of the Infinity Project in each state within the 8th Circuit reach out to senators and other politicians about issues of gender diversity and the need for balance in the courts. The members are committed to the idea that the federal bench should reflect society as a whole and takes into account different life experiences and points of view, she said.
"We don't advocate for individual candidates," Fitzpatrick said. "We just remind them of the list of the qualified women out there. One of the volunteers talked with Harkin's staff before he made his recommendations (for Southern District). We were pleased about how serious he was about filling it with a woman."
Harkin recommended U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose, Fifth Judicial District Judge Karen Romano and Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Mary Tabor for the position.
Harkin said in a telephone interview last week that he has always encouraged affirmative action in his office whether it is one of gender, race or disability.
"Twenty people applied and quite frankly all were well qualified but I was impressed by the quality of the women," Harkin said. "We need diversity on the bench. There's only one woman now on the federal bench in the Northern District, one in the 8th Circuit and none in the Southern District. It's ironic because Iowa was the first state to admit a woman to the bar. Gender diversity helps the strength of the country, just like racial diversity."
U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett said it's vitally important that people have faith in our justice system and the way to accomplish that is by increasing gender and other diversity in the federal courts to reflect the diversity of the nation.
"It's not that a woman and minority judges rule differently on any specific case or types of cases," Bennett said. "But their life experiences add to the mosaic and tapestry of the federal bench because judges learn from each other. It's important not only to the public but to all federal judges to have a broad spectrum of life experience and differing views among us."
Amy Matsui, senior counsel for the National Women's Law Center, said more work needs to done to bring equity to the judiciary because although women's enrollment in law schools have expanded in the last 20 years, women still don't get the mentorship and cultivation needed to succeed at the highest levels of the profession.
"Often, potential candidates for judicial positions and law firm partnerships need a prominent, well-respected individual or multiple strong supporters advocating for them," Matsui said.
Matsui pointed out that sex discrimination also plays a role in the equity issue for all professions, and the law is no exception, so protections need to be in place and be enforced.
Fitzpatrick said the Infinity Project also offers the kind of support Matsui mentioned to women working towards those leadership roles.
"We encourage women to apply and to find mentors – to demystify the process for them," Fitzpatrick said. "We help prepare them for the questions that will be asked. There's an unbelievable amount of information to submit – it's daunting."
Statistics provided by the National Women's Law Center.