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"Gavel Gap": Study Says Women, Minorities Underrepresented in State Judgeships

Only four states' numbers of nonwhite judges line up with overall population; women underrepresented in all states

A study by two law professors says Indiana needs more women and minority judges -- and so does just about every other state.

Professors Tracey George of Vanderbilt and Albert Yoon of the University of Toronto say their study for the progressive think tank American Constitution Society is the first comprehensive look at who holds the dozens of judgeships at the state level. Their findings: one in five Hoosier judges are women. That's the 12th-worst representation of any state. One in eight Indiana judges are minorities, but that ranks Indiana 20th-best, because it's relatively close to reflecting the minority population overall.

George says a more diverse bench increases fairness in the justice system. She says several past studies have shown judges benefit from experience with the subject matter. George argues it's the reverse of Donald Trump's charge that an Indiana-born judge was biased because he's Latino. She says while Trump accused Gonzalo Curiel of being unable to decide a lawsuit against him on the merits, judges with different backgrounds are better equipped to understand issues that touch on their experiences.

No state has equal representation of men and women on the bench. Oregon comes closest, with 44% of judgeships held by women. Just four states have as many minority judges as their population would indicate, including Hawaii, the most diverse state, and West Virginia, the third-whitest. Montana and South Dakota also have more nonwhite judges than their populations would indicate.

George plans a follow-up study on the causes of the mismatch. She notes some states elect judges, while others appoint them and still others have a merit selection system. Indiana uses pieces of all three -- most trial-court judges are elected, but Lake and Saint Joseph County judges are appointed, and appellate judges go through a merit commission.

Urban counties typically have heavier concentrations of minorities, which could leave fewer minority candidates for judgeships in rural counties. But while only a third of American lawyers are women, George says it's still a large enough pool of potential judges to eliminate what she dubs the "gavel gap."

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