Thirty years ago today, women and girls in every corner of the country watched with pride as Sandra Day O’Connor raised her right hand, took an oath and became the first woman justice on the Supreme Court. As a lawyer who has spent my entire career fighting for equality and justice, it was an extraordinary moment and, as it turns out, one that began an overdue march toward greater representation for women on our courts.
Today, nearly 46 percent of law school graduates are women – a significant jump from 32.8 percent 30 years ago. But it will be many years before some of those new graduates take their places on the bench. Of the more than 17,100 federal and state judges in this country today, only 26 percent are women.
The Senate’s failure to put aside partisan politics and confirm highly qualified judicial nominees is a big part of the problem. President Obama has nominated many strong candidates for the federal bench, including 71 women, but the confirmations of many have been stalled in the Senate. Currently, the confirmations of more than 18 women have been stalled. More than one in seven federal judgeships in the country – 103 positions – are or soon will be vacant. And 31 of them qualify as judicial emergencies.*
Last December, National Partnership President Debra Ness said it was time to sound the alarm on judicial vacancies. “Justice depends on having judges in place to enforce our laws, resolve disputes and protect the rights of those who face discrimination and violations of their rights,” she said. That remains true, and deeply troubling, because the intransigence in the Senate shows no sign of abating.
Unless it does, and unless senators routinely confirm qualified female and male nominees who have a deep commitment to equal justice under the law for women, people of color, workers, seniors, immigrants and everyone who faces discrimination, we will not fully realize the promise of that extraordinary moment 30 years ago – and equal justice will remain elusive.
* Nominee and vacancy numbers updated November 17, 2011