Center for American Progress

RELEASE: CAP Report Shows Need for Much Greater Professional Diversity on the Federal Appellate Bench
Press Release

RELEASE: CAP Report Shows Need for Much Greater Professional Diversity on the Federal Appellate Bench

Washington, D.C. — A new report from the Center for American Progress highlights the need for more professional diversity among federal judges.

Following the release of an issue brief from CAP calling for term limits for U.S. Supreme Court justices, this new report comes as officials drafting the Democratic Party platform have added language calling for structural reform of the federal courts, including the need to nominate more public defenders, legal aid lawyers, and civil rights lawyers.

The report, which builds on previous work by CAP, makes clear just how pressing that need is: Only about 1 percent or circuit court judges spent their careers as public defenders or legal aid attorneys. There is no sitting appellate judge who spent most of their career at nonprofit, civil rights organizations, as Justice Thurgood Marshall did. Instead, the bench is overwhelmed with judges who spent the majority of their careers as lawyers in private practice as well as federal prosecutors.

“Unfortunately, the bench has been dominated for too long by those from a narrow range of professional backgrounds,” said Maggie Jo Buchanan, director of Legal Progress at CAP and author of the report. “Professional experiences can powerfully inform judges’ thinking as they evaluate weighty questions of constitutional and statutory law. People deserve to have more judges who have dedicated their careers to representing those most in need in order to ensure American law is responsive to the needs and experiences of everyone in our country.”

Among the findings:

  • Only three appellate judges spent the majority of their careers as lawyers as local, state, or federal public defenders.
  • Only one judge spent the majority of his career with a legal aid organization.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the bench spent their careers in private practice, most having worked for business-focused firms.
  • Of those who previously worked in the federal government—the second-most common career path among appellate judges—a strong majority spent the bulk of their careers as prosecutors.

The report calls for reforms to bring greater professional diversity to the federal bench. It is essential that the next administration—and U.S. Senate—be dedicated to appointing and confirming more professionally diverse judges.

But there is more to be done across the profession to disrupt the current, narrow pipeline to judgeships. Law schools, for example, can help foster professional networks that can help a young lawyer set out on the path to becoming a judge. Congress can also invest in more robust loan forgiveness programs for all students, including young lawyers, so that public interest work is more affordable.

Read the report: “Pipelines to Power: Encouraging Professional Diversity on the Federal Appellate Bench,” by Maggie Jo Buchanan

For more information or to speak with an expert, please contact Sam Hananel at [email protected].