A new Brennan Center study found that state supreme courts nationwide are failing to seat justices who represent the communities they serve.
The study found that 22 states do not have any justice who publicly identifies as a person of color, including 11 states where people of color make up at least 20% of the population.
Overall, just one in six of the country’s justices are Black, Latino, Asian American, or Native American, even though people of color make up almost 40% of the U.S. population.
“A diverse bench is vital to achieving a fair system of justice and promoting public trust in the courts. Across the country, state supreme courts fail to reflect an increasingly diverse population,” said Alicia Bannon of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Bannon explains the disparities as, “driven by many factors, including a long history of racial and gender discrimination in the United States and inequities in access to law schools and the legal bar.”
The lack of diversity on the bench is just as true in Florida as it is elsewhere.
The Florida Bar reports that, as of 2017, only 17.5% of Florida’s state judges were people of color even though the latest Census reports show that people of color make up nearly half of the state’s population.
The Florida Access to Justice Project says changing the way Florida nominates judges could produce a substantial and timely change in the makeup of the courts.
Florida judges are nominated by Judicial Nominating Commissions, which are meant to ensure an independent, nonpartisan process for appointing judges.
In 2001, JNCs were changed to give the Governor the ability to reject all of the Florida Bar’s recommendations submitted for judicial openings. The Florida Access to Justice Project says the change has given the Governor “total authority” over nominees, freeing them up to appoint political allies.
A 2013 Florida Bar task force survey supports that assertion. Of 1,555 lawyers surveyed, 77% said partisan politics were more important than merit in winning appointments to nominating commissions.
Our system hasn’t changed since then, though Rep. Fentrice Driskell and Sen. Perry Thurston filed bills this year that would have curtailed the Governor’s influence over JNCs. However, neither bill was heard in committee.
“Bills like the ones introduced this year by Sen. Thurston and Rep. Driskell were designed to limit the outsized influence governors have on our judiciary and ensure a judicial nominating process that is independent and reflective of our diverse state,” said Damien Filer on behalf of the Florida Access to Justice Project and Progress Florida.
As it stands, Florida is one of 12 states that has only one woman on the state supreme court, and one of eight states where there is no Black justice, despite Black residents making up at least 10% of the population.
As Trelvis Randolph, General Counsel for the Miami-Dade NAACP, puts it: “By passing JNC reforms we can be assured Florida’s judiciary will reflect our diverse state and be free from the undue influence of partisan politics and special-interest money — with access to justice for all.”