Editorial: Judicial diversity needs attention

Kansas needs to do a better job when it comes to getting women and minorities in judicial posts.

The lack of diversity among judges in Kansas is a concerning issue that state officials should make a priority to address in future judicial openings.

The Gavel Gap, a study by the nonpartisan American Constitution Society, found that women and minorities make up only a small fraction of judges on state courts in the United States. The study, which looked at the race, gender and ethnicity of state judges nationwide, showed that the problem is particularly acute in Kansas, where white males dominate the bench.

Nationwide, the report found that while women make up 51 percent of the population, they account for just 30 percent of state court judges. Minorities make up 38 percent of the population, but they account for only about 20 percent of state judges.

In Kansas, white men make up 38 percent of the state’s population, but they account for 73 percent of state judges, a difference of plus-35 percentage points. Women are half the state’s population, but hold just 18 percent of the judicial positions. And while minorities account for 23 percent of the state population, they hold just 11 percent of the state judgeships.

Kansas ranked 47th of 50 states on the gap between its percentage of female population and percentage of female judges. Further, the study found Kansas has a 57-point gap between the percentage of women and minorities on the bench versus women and minorities in the general population. The state ranks 42nd in the nation for racial and gender equity in its judicial posts.

Douglas County District Court, which features five women judges among the seven seats, is an exception to the rest of the state. But all seven judges are white.

Because the selection of judges comes from practicing attorneys, there is a limit to the pool of candidates eligible to fill judicial openings. Stephen Mazza, dean of the University of Kansas School of Law, said the university has worked to recruit minority students.

“We’re trying our best to encourage students from diverse backgrounds — racial, gender, socioeconomic status — to apply to law school,” Mazza said. “If they don’t apply, we can’t admit them.”

It’s critically important to the fairness of the legal system that individuals see themselves reflected on the bench when they interact with the judicial system.

Kansas can do better. State officials need to recruit more women and minorities to law school and make a commitment to identify and groom women and minorities who are good candidates for judicial openings.