A new study conducted by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy gave Ohio a failing grade for judicial diversity in its state courts.
The report, titled “The Gavel Gap: Who Sits in Judgment on State Courts?” was the result of a collaboration between a team of independent researchers at Vanderbilt University and the University of Toronto.
Authored by Vanderbilt professor of law and political science Tracey George and University of Toronto professor of law and economics Albert Yoon, the report indicated that most states are falling short when it comes to how well the judiciary represents the population.
“Using the State Bench Database, we examine the gender, racial and ethnic composition of state courts,” the report states. “We then compare the composition of state courts to the composition of the general population in each state.
“We find that courts are not representative of the people whom they serve — that is, a gap exists between the bench and the citizens. We call this gap the Gavel Gap.”
The principal findings of the study indicate that women, who comprise roughly half of the U.S. population and half of American law school students, are underrepresented on the bench by a ratio one woman on the bench for every four women in the state.
“Not a single state has as many women judges as it does men,” the report states.
People of color, who account for roughly four in 10 people in the country, are represented by fewer than two in 10 state court judges. In 16 states, judges of color make up fewer than one in 10 state judges.
“The story of racial diversity in state courts is one of sharp contrasts,” George and Yoon wrote.
In Ohio, which the society ranked at 28 out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, white men make up 64 percent of the state judiciary. This is despite the fact that white men make up only 40 percent of the state’s population.
White women, who are 41 percent of the population, are represented by only 26 percent of the judiciary. And for women of color, who are 10 percent of the state’s population, only 5 percent of state judges represent them.
Men of color fair similarly at 4 percent of the state bench and 9 percent of the general population in Ohio.
“As recently as May 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court has found unconstitutional jury selection practices that produce an all-white jury,” the report states. “Yet, the reality is that minority defendants face a nearly all-white trial bench in many states.”
Nationally, the findings of the study indicate that 70 percent of defendants in trial courts are not white. The judges before whom they appear, on the other hand, are 80 percent white.
The top spot for diversity in state courts went to Hawaii which was followed closely by the District of Columbia. The lowest failing grade went to Utah.
The results of the study illustrate a troubling trend, according to George and Yoon.
“State courts handle more than 90 percent of the judicial business in America,” they wrote. “We know surprisingly little about who serves on state courts … we need to know more about state judges.”
According to the Court Statistics Project, a joint effort of the National Center for State Courts and the Conference of State Court Administrators, approximately 94 million cases were brought in U.S. state trial courts in 2013.
“In a single year,” the report states, “nearly one case was filed for every three people in the United States.”
In contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court decides fewer than 100 cases per year.
“The findings from this study have several important implications,” George and Yoon wrote. “First, they should inform the current method of identifying and selecting judges. Second, they demonstrate that we need a better process for developing a pipeline of women and minorities to serve as judges.”
At stake, report noted, is the public’s faith in the legitimacy of the judicial system.
“Our courts must be representative in order to fulfill their purpose,” the report states. “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.”
More information and complete data sets can be found at gavelgap.org.