North Carolinians can take pride in a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school that examines state supreme courts across the nation.
But the same report gives us reason to worry.
The report finds that North Carolina is doing better than most states in having a high court that reflects the state’s population.
North Carolina is one of only five states where the percentage of people of color on the bench is a little higher than the percentage in the general population. Three of our seven justices are people of color. That works out to roughly 43%; the state’s population is about 37% nonwhite.
North Carolina also has three women on the high court, and Cheri Beasley is the state’s first black female chief justice.
Take a look at the high courts in most other states, and you’ll see a majority of white men. That’s true even though, across the nation, white men now make up not quite a third of the population.
The U.S. has an increasingly diverse population, but the courts that make the most important decisions on state laws don’t reflect that diversity. In 24 states, all of the supreme court justices are white, including eight states where a quarter or more of the people who live there are people of color. Even where there’s at least one justice who isn’t white, the percentage who are white is still much higher than what you’ll see if you look around that state.
Does this matter? Surely the ability to be a good justice doesn’t depend on whether someone is male or female, or a particular race. There are white men on the bench who do a good job of making sure everyone who comes before them is treated equally.
But the justice system and the courts are stronger if people — all people — have reason to believe they will be treated fairly. And it’s more than a just perception. There’s a real danger that if all or most nearly all the judges are white males, some situations and points of view are overlooked. It’s well documented that even when dealing with similar offenses, people of color are much more likely to be arrested and much more likely to serve time.
So North Carolinians should feel good that our state’s diversity is reflected on our highest court. But the part of the report that analyzes why women and people of color are underrepresented on most states’ courts suggests that we shouldn’t take our progress for granted.
The problem, the report said, is that women and people of color are much less likely to win judicial elections. Most of those who have made it onto the bench started out by being appointed to fill a vacancy, as is the case with Beasley.
Minority candidates usually raise less money and are more likely to be challenged when they run for re-election. It’s an uphill battle.
Why have things been better lately in North Carolina? The report’s authors said that when judicial candidates have access to public financing, diversity increases. In 2002, North Carolina became the first state to enact public financing for judicial elections. A lot less special-interest money from wealthy donors poured into judicial races, and candidates had more time to talk to voters. Good things happened.
Too bad legislators saw fit to repeal that public financing program in 2013.
Stay tuned for the next election.