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For N.C. judiciary, diversity efforts bring progress but not parity

 

Statistics show that North Carolina’s courts are not as diverse as the populations they serve.

Several studies conducted in the last 20 years have suggested that beyond increasing public trust in the judiciary, creating a more proportionally diverse judicial system can actually increase justice by influencing how decisions get made.

“The Gavel Gap,” a 2014 study by the American Constitution Society, found that most state judiciaries in the country, including in North Carolina, do not represent the populations of the state.

“Our laws are premised in part on the idea that our courts will be staffed by judges who can understand the circumstances of the communities which they serve,” authors Tracey George and Albert Yoon wrote. “Our judicial system depends on the general public’s faith in its legitimacy. Both of these foundational principles require a bench that is representative of the people whom the courts serve.”

While women made up about 51 percent of North Carolina’s population in 2018, they currently hold about 36 percent of the judicial positions in the state, according to statistics provided by the North Carolina Judicial Branch. And while non-white people made up about 29 percent of the total population in the state in 2018, statistics showed that minorities currently hold only 24 percent of judicial positions in the state.

Buncombe County Chief District Court Judge J. Calvin Hill, who is only the second African-American judge to ever serve in his district, said that he believes judges should be representative of the communities in which they serve.

“If you got black, white, and brown people living in the community, to the extent that you can, the judiciary ruling on their matters should look like the people that come before them,” Hill said.

I.S. Leevy Johnson, the first African American graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law and president of the South Carolina Bar Association, and founding partner at Johnson, Toal & Battiste in Columbia, South Carolina, said that diversity also plays a role in the perception of fairness.

“From a historical point of view, African-Americans have had mixed emotions about the judiciary because the history demonstrates that the judiciary was heavily involved in not always obeying the rule of law,” Johnson said. “The law was abused by some law enforcement officers and people involved in the judiciary.”

Hill said that for the judiciary to work, the community must believe the court system is fair.

“I think it’s important we have as diverse a judiciary as possible because it makes people more comfortable knowing an all-white judiciary doesn’t have all the say so,” Hill said. “People want to believe people are being treated fairly when they come to court.”

Having a diversity of racial, gender and socio-economic perspectives, Hill said, also actually increases the likelihood of the court getting a judgment right.

“If you grow up in a middle-class family versus if you grow up in a poor community, then you look at things differently,” he said. “Coming from a poor community, my idea may be very different than some judges who come from a different socioeconomic class.”

While the population of the North Carolina judiciary does not yet line up with the population of the state, statistics show significant improvements since 2009, when the National Center for State Courts found that only 14 percent of judges were female and minorities only held 12 percent of judgeships.

While acknowledging the existing statistical disparity, Hill said he’s optimistic about the future as more and more women and minorities enter the legal profession.

“African-Americans and women are getting into law school at larger rates, and as communities see these people perform in the judiciary, hopefully, people will become more comfortable after they see them perform,” he said.

The North Carolina State Bar reports that women make up about 43 percent of the state’s lawyer population, while racial minorities make up only about 14 percent. So while the percentage of non-white judges has at least caught up with the composition of the state’s legal profession, the same cannot be said of gender diversity in the state’s judiciary.

Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judge Carla Archie said in a 2017 interview that more efforts should be made to reach minority and female students while they’re young.

“Let’s not wait until high school to start talking to kids about being lawyers and judges, because oftentimes they don’t think about that as an option,” she said. “They don’t know anybody who’s a lawyer; they’ve never seen anyone up close and personal who wears a black robe.”

Members of the North Carolina Supreme Court declined to comment for this story, citing a wish to remain impartial on cases that come before them.

 

Percentage of Total Percentage of Total
Female Judges in NC (2019) 36 percent Minority Judges in NC (2019) 24 percent
Male Judges in NC (2019) 64 percent White Judges in NC (2019) 76 percent
Female Population in NC (2018) 51 percent Minority Population in NC (2018) 29 percent
Male Population in NC (2018) 49 percent White Population in NC (2018) 71 percent
Female Lawyers in NC (2019) 43 percent Minority Lawyers in NC (2019) 14 percent
Male Lawyers in NC (2019) 57 percent White Lawyers in NC  (2019) 86 percent

 

Sources: North Carolina Judicial Branch, North Carolina State Bar, U.S. Census Bureau

 

Follow Matt Chaney on Twitter @NCLWChaney

 


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