Gavel Gap report cover-page0001This past month, the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy released a report that examines diversity among state court judges. Their analysis from all 50 states and the District of Columbia revealed what the ACS is calling “the gavel gap.”

As described by the ACS:

“For most people, state courts are the ‘law’ for all effective purposes. But we know surprisingly little about state court judges, despite their central and powerful role. Unlike their counterparts on the federal courts, much of the relevant information is non-public, and in many states, not even collected in a systematic way. This lack of information is especially significant because judges’ backgrounds have important implications for the work of courts and the degree to which the public has confidence in their decisions.”

“In order to address this serious shortcoming in our understanding of America’s courts, we have constructed an unprecedented database of state judicial biographies. This dataset—the State Bench Database—includes more than 10,000 current sitting judges on state courts of general jurisdiction in all 50 states. We use it to examine the gender, racial, and ethnic composition of state courts, which we then compare to that of the general population in each state. We find that courts are not representative of the people whom they serve. We call this disparity The Gavel Gap.”

The primary report authors are Tracey E. George, Professor of Law and Political Science at Vanderbilt University, and Albert H. Yoon, Professor of Law and Economics at the University of Toronto.

As they conclude, “We find that state courts do not look like the communities they serve, which has ramifications for the functioning of our judicial system and the rule of law. Our findings are particularly important given the vital role state courts play in our democracy, in our economy, and in our daily lives.”

The complete report is available here and is only 28 pages. Thankfully, it’s also written clearly and accessibly. If you’d like a deeper dive, the ACS also permits anyone to download the underlying data to examine things for yourself.

Take a look. I’d enjoy hearing what you think of the gap in Arizona, or nationwide. And here are a few of the report’s findings.

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Gavel Gap report infographic 1

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Gavel Gap report infographic 2

For most of us, the term “judicial independence” remains a remote and pretty theoretical term. An event this week attempts to bring its meaning into stark relief.

For at least the past decade, courts local and national have sought to educate the public on the value of an independent judiciary, what is now termed by them “fair courts.” Their efforts are in response to initiatives launched by others to more firmly control the courts and the outcomes that flow from them. Those initiatives—often branded attacks by the courts and their supporters—range from the possible to the unlikely. And in Arizona, 2012 will see even more dialogue on judges and those who select them.

(I’ve written on the topic a few times this year; see here and here.)

This week, an intriguing speaker weighs in on the question at the University of Arizona Law School. There, on Thursday, a former state Supreme Court Chief Justice will speak at the invitation of a student group, the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

Former Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus

Marsha Ternus was the Iowa C.J., and in 2010 she was at the losing end of a bruising and nationally watched ballot fight. By the time the votes were counted, she and two other sitting justices had been ousted following their ruling in one high-profile case, on gay marriage.

Here is the press release from the school (also found on their Facebook page):

The Increasing Politicization Of Judicial Elections And The Impact On Judicial Independence

The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS) at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law is holding an event on judicial independence featuring Justice Marsha Ternus, former Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court. She will discuss the increasing politicization of judicial elections and the impact that has on judicial independence and the fairness and impartiality of judicial decision making.

When: Thursday, January 19, 2012, 12:15 pm – 1:15 pm

Where: Ares Auditorium, Room 164, James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona

Address: 1201 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson, AZ 85719

Justice Ternus was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1993 by Governor Terry Branstad and members of the court elected her chief justice in 2006. She was the first woman to serve as chief justice of Iowa’s highest court. Justice Ternus grew up on a farm near Vinton, Iowa and received her bachelor’s degree with honors and high distinction from the University of Iowa. She earned her law degree with honors from Drake University, Order of the Coif, where she was editor-in-chief of the Drake Law Review.

In April 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court, in Varnum v. Brien, unanimously declared the state’s same-sex marriage restriction unconstitutional, making Iowa the third state in the country to allow same-sex marriages. The three justices up for retention in 2010 were then targeted by a well-organized and well-financed campaign to unseat them and in November 2010, Iowa voters removed Justice Ternus and two other justices from office.

About ACS: ACS sponsors speakers, events and policy debates with the goal of providing a progressive viewpoint. ACS is transforming legal and policy debates in classrooms, courtrooms, legislature and the media. Through these efforts, ACS aims to ensure American legal institutions reflect the highest values of our nation and serve the needs of its people.