Growing Number Of Women Wield State Court Gavels

Here's a saying for the 1990s: A woman's place is on the bench.

Over the past decade, a subtle shift has taken place in courts across America. In 1985, 23 women were serving on the highest courts in their states, according to the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va. That number has jumped to 70 - and seven of these are chief justices.

The trend has been highlighted in recent weeks by the appointments of women to the California and New Jersey high courts, and news that governors in New York and Massachusetts may appoint women to such posts. Moreover, the growing presence of women justices has changed courthouse culture in a number of ways - from the adjudication of cases affecting women to consciousness-raising seminars for judges.

"It's important for the judiciary to reflect the people," says Lynn Hecht Shafran of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund in Washington. "As a general rule, women judges on the whole are more sensitive on sexual-assault and family issues because their life experience gives them insight."

While women now represent about 20 percent of state high-court justices, some women's rights activists say more women are needed on the nation's court benches to help make the justice system fairer to women. Ms. Shafran cites a recent case in Puerto Rico, in which a male judge ruled that the defendant, who raped a woman at gunpoint during a carjacking, did not deserve a longer sentence because of the rape. Quoting federal guidelines in a new carjacking law, he found that rape did not qualify as "serious bodily injury."

When the First Circuit Court of Appeals voted not to reconsider the case last month, one panel member, Judge Sandra Lynch of Boston, wrote a blistering dissent: "I doubt that Congress intended the [federal carjacking] statute to be applied in such a way that a brutal rape could fail to constitute 'serious bodily injury.' "

But some legal scholars say such cases hinge more on the interpretation of laws than on the gender of judges. Gender, they say, is only one factor in the equation.

"It is simplistic to say that all women lawyers are a particular kind of lawyer," says Roger Dennis, a law professor at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. "Would a Reagan-appointed woman judge deal with a set of facts differently than a male Clinton appointee? There's more than gender going on here." He also points out that all judges, whether men or women, are trained lawyers who tend to look at issues through the same legal lens.

Still, women on the bench have incrementally changed the tenor of the courthouse, regardless of their political stripes.

"Judges used to call women lawyers by their first name, but they called male lawyers 'counselor,' " says Justice Ruth Abrams of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who was first appointed to the bench in the late 1970s. "Not anymore. Here in Massachusetts, gender bias was brought to the forefront. People could see that there was a problem."

The state now holds regular all-court seminars on gender fairness, where judges at all levels can gather to discuss how to squelch discrimination in their courtrooms.

But still, she says, discrimination exists. "You see it in a lot of different ways, where the economic value of injuries is being decided. Juries often return verdicts that men's livelihoods are more valuable," because men generally earn more.

The rising numbers of women on the bench can be attributed largely to their strides in the legal field. As more women go to law school and move up the career ladder, more are positioned to be chosen for judicial posts.

But the trend is also being driven in part by politics.

"For governors, it is politically advantageous to choose a woman if there is an available pool of qualified candidates," says Sherry Bebich Jeffe, political scientist at the Claremont School in Claremont, Calif. "Democrats are more consumed with the issue of gender and race, but Republicans are being forced to head in that direction, too. You can't appoint just white males - it just doesn't work anymore."

Consequently, women judges don't come from a single mold and sometimes face vehement opposition from women's advocacy groups. California's most recent Supreme Court justice, Janice Rogers Brown, is a black former appellate judge known for her conservative views on crime. New Jersey's new chief justice, Deborah Poritz, has shifted the balance in the state Supreme Court from an activist Democratic leadership to a restrained Republican one.

"I would far rather be judged by a fair judge - black or white, male or female - than by someone with an ax to grind," says Anita Blair, president of the conservative-leaning Independent Women's Forum in Washington. "I think justice is sex-blind, as well as color-blind and class-blind. I'm not concerned how many women are judges, just that they are qualified and fair."

To be sure, America's courtrooms have a perception problem. A 1988 study by the American Bar Association states: "Women [attorneys] report that they are often treated with a presumption of incompetence, to be overcome only by flawless performance, whereas they see men attorneys treated with a presumption of competence overcome only after numerous significant mistakes." In Nebraska, where only 7 percent of judges are women, lawyers said in a survey said that judges treat property crimes as more serious than crimes against women and children.

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