The Gavel Gap Report Cover

State courts are glaringly lacking in diversity compared to the populations they serve, according to a new report that calls the disparity the “gavel gap.”

The report, titled “The Gavel Gap: Who Sits in Judgement at State Courts?,” presents original research done by law professors Tracey E. George and Albert H. Yoon and published by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

The researchers amassed an unprecedented database detailing the race, ethnicity, and gender of 10,000 sitting judges on state courts, ranging from trial to state supreme courts, in 50 states and the District of Columbia. They then compared the percentage of women and minorities on each state judicial bench to that of the state’s general population and graded the jurisdictions on parity from “A” to “F,” with the latter going to states with a representation gap of 40 percent or more.

A majority of the states—41 out of 51—received grades of “D” or “F,” indicating a woeful lack of diversity. For example, while people of color compose 38 percent of the general population, they make up just 20 percent of state judges, according to the study’s findings. There is also gender disparity, with women representing only one-third (30 percent) of state judges, though they are more than half (51 percent) of the general population. Contrastingly, White men are twice as represented on state judiciaries (approximately 58 percent) as in the general population (30 percent.)

Such bias, the study’s authors said, have serious implications given that 90 percent of cases in the United States are tried in state courts.

“The vast majority of Americans’ interactions with the judicial system, ranging from traffic violations to criminal proceedings, happen in state courts,” said Tracey E. George, a professor at Vanderbilt University and one of the co-authors of the report. “When people do not see themselves represented in their community leadership, when the vast majority of judges cannot relate to the lived experience of those they serve—this is a problem. It creates a mistrust of judges, and propagates the mystery surrounding the court system. For the first time, we have the data we need to identify and address this serious problem.”

The “gavel gap” presents new evidence to fuel the growing call for criminal justice reform. Recently, advocates have renewed a push to revamp the U.S. justice system following nationally-publicized cases involving the extrajudicial killing of unarmed African Americans by police and citizens, many of whom were either never tried or acquitted of the killings, and evidence showing the over-criminalization and disproportionate penalization of Black Americans.


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO