When was the last time you were in a courtroom? Jury duty aside, I think Karen Cole, a lawyer and long-time volunteer for the Minnesota Women Lawyers summed it up pretty well when she said, “Most people have never been in a courtroom and hope never to be in one.”
If you haven’t been in a courtroom recently and especially if you’re a fan of television courtroom dramas, you might think that women are pretty well represented among the judiciary. Unfortunately, that’s where entertainment and reality part company. According to statistics from the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ), in 2007, just under 25 percent of judicial seats were held by women.
“It’s going up slowly,” NAWJ Executive Director Drucilla Stender Ramey told me. “About 1 percent per year.” Minnesota’s doing a little better than average-and I do mean a little: In 2007, out of a total 295 Minnesota judges, 84, or just under 28.5 percent, were women.
This year, you can help improve those numbers by taking some time to inform yourself about statewide and county judicial races. In Minnesota, many judges are elected (in some states, more are appointed), which gives women a great opportunity to both run for judge and to support other women who are fair, competent, and public-service minded, and seek to exercise those characteristics in the courtroom. While many seats are uncontested, there are races of particular interest that are.
Judicial races are not flashy. The women who compete in them are not household names. They don’t raise lots of money or compare themselves to animals wearing cosmetics. In fact, they often don’t even talk about issues because to do so can make them appear biased. Most candidates shun political endorsements, which are new to Minnesota’s judiciary. Add these factors together and it’s no wonder that we don’t know more about the candidates who run for the judiciary.
“It’s not easy to find out about judicial candidates,” Stender Ramey told me. She suggests doing some Internet searches to see what you can learn about sitting judges and judicial candidates.
Stender Ramey wasn’t kidding about it not being easy. Where to start? Karen Cole suggested a valuable resource: the Minnesota Lawyers website.
The website has a number of features that are available only to members, but its 2008 Judicial Election Guide is accessible to the public. Go to www.minnlawyer.com. Along with the candidates’ backgrounds, education, experience and affiliations, each candidate’s answer to thoughtful questions is reprinted.
And check out the candidates’ websites. You’ll get some perspective on how they view the role of the judiciary, and what their priorities are.
Don’t make the mistake I once did. I moved close to an election, and didn’t think I had time to really check out the candidates. I voted for a female candidate because she was a woman with a hyphenated name. To my chagrin, I learned later that her name was just about the only “progressive” thing about this candidate. Moral of the story: Vote for candidates who are qualified. Luckily, in the contested races, especially ones in our metro area, there are some high-caliber female candidates with excellent experience. I hope you’ll consider them.