I got to sit down with them at lunch not too long ago. Female judges don't look any different from female lawyers. But if you know they’re all judges, it does feel like coming into personal contact with a little bit of history. Naturally, I had to ask if there’s a noticeable difference with an all-female bench -- and naturally, there were differences of opinion.
"I think the only real difference is we do have these regular lunches together," said Judge Phyllis Hamilton. "We talk shop most of the time, but we also talk shopping and other things that maybe if we had male colleagues we wouldn't, but other than that I don't see many differences."
Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers interjected at this point. "I don't know," she said. "I would talk about that with my male colleagues, too."
At this point, the judges erupted with laughter.
Unexpected Career Turns
Altogether there are six judges at the federal courthouse in Oakland. Not a single one thought as a little girl that she would be a judge. Most thought “lawyer.” One judge is a former corporate lawyer. Another was a government lawyer. One was a city attorney. One was a public defender. Another was a professor of law. One started out as a cop. Invariably, somebody else suggested the idea of donning judges robes.
"I had all of these seasoned women judges and attorneys who I really looked up to, saying 'Come on, move on. You've got to do this. This is important,' " said Judge Gonzalez Rogers. "So, I ultimately did put it an application."
Courthouses periodically host school groups coming through. On a recent afternoon, an all-female class from Mills College in Oakland got the chances to talk to three of the judges. They all demurred when one of students asked whether being a woman affects the way they judge. That said, they did agree that personal history does make a difference. Showing the class around her chambers, Judge Donna Ryu reflected on that fact.
"You know, you're the mix of all of your life experience," Judge Ryu said. "The fact that I grew up with working parents, or the fact that I have four brothers, or played sports, might have some impact on how I see a dispute in some subtle way in which I make a decision."
Chief Judge Claudia Wilken says it’s just a coincidence that a number of women judges in the Northern District, with the seniority to ask for it, asked to be posted in Oakland. But what are the chances? Women make up about 30 percent of federal judges in California, as they do on average nationwide. That’s even though graduating law classes have been evenly split along gender lines for about two decades now.
Parity Grows From Below
Judge Ryu says you don’t get to gender parity on the bench without establishing gender parity at law firms first.
"We have a very strong bar association of San Francisco," she notes. "About a dozen years ago, they created this diversity task force. They got 100-plus prominent firms to sign on, and on top of keeping track of statistics, they’ve done things like study what’s going on, for example, with minority lawyers in law firms. Are they being recruited? Are they staying? Are they making it into management positions? What are the barriers? Intentional study -- that really changes things in the long run."
Men and women say it’s easier to limit office hours working for the government, or in boutique law firms, and those are the places where you see many women making the biggest inroads. In corporate law, men still dominate -- especially the ranks of trial lawyers. Those are the guys that make partner, most of the time. Nina Marino is a partner at Kaplan Marino, a criminal defense law firm in Beverly Hills.
"Really, when you look at the law firms -- what’s the level of women partners?" she asks. "It’s not 50 percent. It’s not even close. I would be surprised if it was even 30 percent. So the barriers have to be broken down at the most fundamental of levels, which is really the law firms."
Lack of Diversity Noticed
Back at the courthouse in Oakland, Judge Hamilton says she can see it from the bench.
"I really notice when there’s more than one woman in the courtroom, and oftentimes there’s not even one. I notice when there are people of color, and there are oftentimes none."
That lack of diversity speaks volumes to everybody in the courtroom: the plaintiffs, the witnesses, the jurors, even the public.
"Well, certainly having a female judge changes the way the courtroom feels to the women appearing in the courtroom," said San Francisco trial lawyer Nanci Clarence, of Clarence Dyer & Cohen. She has helped to vet Northern District judges, including one of the magistrate judges in Oakland, Kandis Westmore.
"The judges should look like the people that they serve, the people whose interests they decide," Clarence said. "The cases that come before them are diverse. The people that come before them are diverse. And for us as a people to continue to care about respect the law, we have to ensure that our legal system and our judicial branch reflects the people that it serves."
Things are heading in that direction, but slowly. Given that federal judgeships are lifetime appointments, it may take another 20 years for women to reach gender parity on the federal bench in California.