The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 03, 2021 1:00 am


Jurists of our peers

Minority representation falls short on bench

“The United States is more diverse than ever, but its state judges are not.”

Researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law included that statement in a report published in 2010. Their report – titled “Improving Judicial Diversity” – found that white men dominated the judiciary among courts at all levels across the U.S. and that racial and gender diversity on the bench lagged behind diversity levels in 10 states studied.

“Almost every other demographic group is underrepresented when compared to their share of the nation's population,” the 76-page study says. “There is also evidence that the number of black male judges is actually decreasing.”

Indiana was not one of the states studied for the report but, distressingly, updated research shows that little has changed in the state, even a decade later.

But opportunity for improvement is looming in Allen County, where all judges are white and just two magistrates are people of color.

The American Constitution Society says courts should resemble the people they represent and gathered data dating from 2014 for judges in each state. It gives Indiana an F for “representativeness.”

Just 1% of Hoosier judges are women of color, and 11% are men of color. White women and men make up 88% of state court judges in Indiana, compared to 80% nationally.

Indiana's five Supreme Court justices are white, and only one of the state's 15 Court of Appeals judges – Rudolph R. Pyle III – is Black.

Allen Superior Court Judge Charles Pratt announced he will retire in May, taking with him decades of respected work in the court's important Family Relations Division, which handles cases including adoptions and children in need of services.

Officials began accepting applications to replace him, and Pratt's successor will serve out his term, which ends Dec. 31, 2022.

The deadline for applications is March 10. A committee will interview the applicants and forward a list of three finalists to Gov. Eric Holcomb, who will select the county's newest judge.

It's a process that often attracts white, male applicants. Each of the finalists chosen for the last two Allen Superior Court posts was a white man, undoing a short-lived female majority on the bench there.

Magistrate Lori Morgan, who is Black, was the only woman interviewed for those two positions.

Six of the Superior Court's nine judges now are men. Wendy Davis, a former Superior Court judge, in January was sworn in as Allen Circuit Court's first female judge.

Allen County has had one Black judge – William L. Briggs, who retired in 1998 and died in 2017.

About 11% of Allen County's roughly 380,000 residents are Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Loretta Rush, Indiana's chief justice of the Supreme Court, said in a letter to judges last year that state courts must work to avoid “perpetuating the bias and inequity that are carved in our nation's history” and pushed for measures such as implicit bias training for court staff. Local courts have put in place that training and have been progressive in implementing forward-thinking programs such as problem-solving courts and efforts to recruit minority law clerks.

A more diverse local judiciary should continue that progression.

We hope more voices are heard from aspiring judges who will bring different experiences and perspectives to the Allen County bench.

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