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ABA ratings of judicial candidates debated

A more general question arises on what role ABA ratings should play when considering nominations to the federal judiciary.

In a week when many Democratic Senators are opposing a conservative Democrat nominated by President Barack Obama, a Democrat, too, for a federal judgeship, there are concerns about the ratings of women and minority judicial candidates by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Following fierce questioning by U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.,) Al Franken (D.-Minn.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Michael Boggs, a Georgia state court judge, found out that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also opposed him to fill one of several federal judicial vacancies open in Georgia.

The senators cited Boggs’ views – mostly as a state senator – on abortions, civil rights and same gender marriage – for their reasons to question his nomination.

In contrast, there were news reports this week about a new study by Maya Sen, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, who found that women and minority candidates for federal judgeships, who have similar qualifications to white male candidates, got lower ratings from the judicial evaluation committee of the ABA.

The ABA committee rates nominees on “integrity,” “competence,” and “temperament.”

The study raised concerns among liberals. Ironically, many conservatives complain conservative candidates for federal judgeships get biased views from the ABA. President George W. Bush stopped getting their recommendations, MSNBC said.

“I tried as much as possible to compare people who were similarly situated, so I compared women candidates to male candidates across the legal education they had, work experience, legal experience,” Sen told MSNBC. “What I found that even comparing across people who were very similarly situated, women candidates were 19 percent less likely to receive a high rating, and for African-American candidates it was 42 percent less likely.”

The National Bar Association, founded by black attorneys, said the study confirms what they had seen.

“The rating disparity issue is a longstanding complaint,” Patricia Rosier, president of the National Bar Association, told MSNBC. “The National Bar Association has found the same disparity.”

But the ABA disagrees with at least part of the study.  ABA president James R. Silkenat said in a letter to The New York Times the data was old, and the study puts the “blame for this serious problem with the American Bar Association’s nonpartisan process to evaluate the professional qualifications of potential judicial nominees.”

He also agreed, that “the federal courts have far too few women and minority judges.”

The Brookings Institution in 2009 reported that 20 percent of federal judges were women, 6 percent were black and 5 percent were Hispanic.

Sen appears sympathetic to efforts of the ABA to increase diversity.

“The Bar Association to their credit really values diversity and they’ve put initiatives in place to promote diversity,” Sen told MSNBC. “A lot people actually have implicit biases against women and minorities…as a social scientist it’s really hard to rule that out as an explanation.”

In the long run, Sen wants to see a more transparent and objective rating system by the ABA, and the ratings become not the only factor when considering a nominee.

In a related matter, when it comes to law firms, researcher Selena Rezvani says females should make up half of the membership on committees that make everyday decisions in law firms, according to InsideCounsel.

 

Further reading:

Law firms, in-house counsel offices will likely see talent explosion among female applicants

Women attorneys may face double standard when it comes to courtroom attire

Overcoming the hurdles within

 
 
 

Contributing Author

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Ed Silverstein

Ed Silverstein is a veteran writer and editor for magazines, websites and newspapers. A graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he has won several...

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