State Needs A More Diverse Judiciary—A Commentary by Cyrus Habib ’09
State Needs A More Diverse Judiciary
By Cyrus Habib ’09
Nothing gives me more pride in being a Washingtonian than the richly diverse communities that make up our little corner of the United States. One need not look far to find this diversity within nearly every profession imaginable, from Boeing machinists to Yakima Valley apple farmers. But what about our state's judges?
Our state currently has no one of color on the Supreme Court bench, and only one at the Court of Appeals level. That's one person of color out of the 31 appellate judges who interpret our state's constitution and statutes. Such representation is staggeringly low, even by comparison to more homogeneous states, and is unacceptable in a state that boasts a distinguished record of aggressively placing women, African Americans and Asian Americans in elected office.
Justice Bobbe Bridge's recent announcement that she will be stepping down from the Supreme Court, combined with a number of upcoming trial court vacancies, affords Gov. Chris Gregoire a unique opportunity to nudge us back onto the right path.
Although reflecting our state's tremendous diversity is itself a worthy cause, the implications of having a diverse bench are not just cosmetic in nature. Our goal should not be to create a state justice system that merely looks representative; rather, we should strive to enhance our judiciary by introducing perspectives and experiences that would otherwise remain absent.
As someone who has been blind since childhood, I all too often encounter misconceptions about my abilities. Judges, like anyone else, are susceptible to those biases. How discouraging it is to think that, despite all I may accomplish in my life, a well-meaning judge might some day use my blindness as a factor in adjudicating an insurance claim or even a parenting plan. Similarly, as the son of parents who immigrated to this country from Iran, I would hate to think that invidious beliefs about Iranian Americans, or any immigrant community, might determine a person's fate. One way to ensure that courts are compassionate and dynamic is by entrusting them to a judicial pool with diverse, real-world experiences.
That is not to say that our courts should now each come equipped with resident blind or Iranian American judges. We can, however, look to those two examples to demonstrate the beneficial role that increased diversity could play in state courts. Think of the trial and appellate courts that comprise our state judiciary as a community of professionals, whose decisions rely not only on legal expertise, but also on their lived experiences. The narrower the scope of those experiences, the further we are from a judiciary that represents our values.
To those who claim that my position amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking, I offer history as my alibi. Let us look back on the gains achieved by Justice Roger Taney on behalf of Catholics, Justice Louis Brandeis on behalf of Jews, Justice Thurgood Marshall on behalf of African Americans and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on behalf of women, and contemplate how we can honor their courage by bettering our own judiciary right here in Washington state.
I encourage the governor to demonstrate once again her commitment to diversity, as she makes judicial appointments.
NOTES: Cyrus Habib of Seattle is a student at Yale Law School.