A new report on the demographics of California's nearly 1,700 judges finds slow but sure progress on making the bench look more like the state. And yet, more than two-thirds of California judges are white males. What difference does it make, and why should we care? Host Scott Shafer talks with Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis Law School and the first Latino to head a University of California law school.
SCOTT SHAFER: Dean Johnson, good to have you with us.
KEVIN R. JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.
SHAFER: First of all, big picture. What do you make of the statistics just released by the courts, and what do they tell us about the state of California’s judiciary?
JOHNSON: Well, I think that there is some positive, and there’s some issues to be concerned with, in terms of the data. I mean it is amazing, and many people have observed that we have a California Supreme Court that is a majority female. And that’s quite a difference from what it used to be and what it’s like in many different states. However, we still see a basically 2-to-1 margin of males to females on the Court of Appeals and the trial courts in the state of California. And that’s compared with about 50 and sometimes higher percent of women graduates of law schools in recent times. The other thing that jumped out at me as I looked at the data was that there are zero African Americans and zero Latinos currently on the California Supreme Court, which in the past has seen people from those backgrounds on the court. But it currently does not.
SHAFER: The governor is going to have an appointment to make with Joyce Kennard announcing her retirement. I guess you’re saying the governor really ought to appoint a Latino or an African American.
JOHNSON: Well, I think that there’s not a litmus test or a racial litmus test, but I do think that if you’re concerned about the representativeness of the state’s highest court, there should be some effort given to trying to achieve some kind of diversity on the state’s highest court.
SHAFER: And of course in March, Hispanics are expected to pass whites as the single largest group in California. They will make up some 39 percent of the population. And yet ... just 9 percent of the judges in California are Latino. What difference does that make in terms of justice?
JOHNSON: It’s hard to say that it has a direct impact on the outcomes of cases, but it does have an impact on people’s view of the justice system to the extent that the judiciary is not fully representative of the population. It looks less legitimate to many people out there, including many Latinos. We’re talking a situation today where basically 60 percent of K-12 students are Latino, and less than 10 percent of the trial court judges are Latino. When justice appears to be meted out by unrepresentative judges, I think that there’s a concern about the legitimacy of the results and the possible racial injustice of it all.
SHAFER: Yeah. And yet, justice is supposed to be blind. So, is it? What difference does it make, in addition to appearances -- the background of a judge, the gender, the sexual orientation, the race?
JOHNSON: I think when we’re dealing with courts, especially when dealing with the California Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals, where a number of different justices make decisions, work together to make decisions, I think it can be very important not just in terms of appearance, but in terms of the experiences, the background, the understanding and the sensitivities to the issues that come before the court. When you have a diverse court, just like when you have a diverse jury, the idea is that you have a better decision in the end bringing together a variety of perspectives, a variety of thoughts, a variety of ways of looking at the world.
SHAFER: What would you say to critics who suggest that the most important quality in judges is intelligence, experience, their understanding of the law, and that if you are just counting numbers, if you’re just looking to diversify the bench, that you sacrifice quality of the judges. What would you say to them?
JOHNSON: I think you unquestionably have to look at qualifications, abilities, as well as background and ancestry. I think it’s important to have very smart people on the bench. I think it’s important to have people schooled in the law, trained in the law and able in the law. And I don’t think anybody would really dispute that. I think people would also agree that those qualities can be found in women and in men and in minorities, and people from a wide diversity of backgrounds. And we should pay some attention to try to make sure that we look at all of the qualities of the potential judge. Nobody would suggest that excellence and diversity are totally separate and apart. I think people would say that you should consider many different criteria in deciding who should be a judge. But few would say that we should compromise on excellence, that’s for sure.
SHAFER: All right. Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis Law School. Thanks so much for talking with us.
JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.