A report released June 20 revealed Wisconsin’s state judges are among the nation’s least diverse in terms of race and gender.

The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy report, titled “The Gavel Gap,” documented the race and gender of judges in all 50 states and compared the percentages of women and minorities on the bench to those of the population of the entire state.

Researchers found that Wisconsin’s judicial system is 59 percent less diverse than its population. Wisconsin ranked 44 out of 50, making it one of the 26 states to receive an F.

Eighteen percent of the state’s population are people of color, while only 5 percent of Wisconsin’s judges are people of color. Women account for 50 percent of Wisconsin’s population, but only 20 percent of judges are female.

Katie Zaman, a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin, said part of the reason women face challenges when trying to advance their legal careers is because of androcentrism in the field of law. Women might not be taken seriously and can be discriminated against if they are of childbearing age, even if they don’t plan on having children, Zaman said.

Lack of representation in Wisconsin’s courts today is likely due to a lack of intention to appoint a diverse range of judges, not because of overt discrimination, Steven Durlauf, a law expert and professor at UW, said.

Durlauf said the lack of racial diversity may be partially because Wisconsin has a conservative republican governor, who is likely to appoint judges with similar political values. Since minorities are often more liberal, Durlauf said they are less likely to be appointed as judges under conservative leadership.

Zaman said another possible reason is the institutional racism that is present in America at large. She said the lack of racial diversity in the legal system is a symptom of the larger problem.

Whatever the cause, Durlauf said a lack of diversity in the justice system is likely to compromise its effectiveness.

“When we think about a justice system, we want the opinions and the perspectives of everybody to count,” Durlauf said. “Men and women and black and white people are different; they bring different perspectives. If you end up in a situation where groups are not represented, then those perspectives are not part of this very complicated process that we call the justice system.”

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While diversity may not be evident in the state’s justice system, UW’s law school is a different story. At UW, approximately one-quarter of incoming students each year are minorities — as opposed to about 10 percent of the state population — and nearly half are female.

Zaman said working to fight the institutions that challenge women and minorities from reaching the top of their fields is the only way to remedy the lack of diversity on the bench. 

“It is just as important that we make sure the rest of our students are educated in structural racism and sexism and understand how it works to disadvantage certain groups,” Zaman said.

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