Race and gender on Southern supreme courts

Race and gender on Southern supreme courts

By Hastings Wyman –

The state supreme courts in the South have not been the exclusive bailiwick of white males in decades. Currently, women are well-represented on the high courts of Dixie, with 29 justices to 65 who are men. Moreover, two chief justices, Bernice Johnson in Louisiana and Jean Toal in South Carolina are women. Overall, 31% of the Southern justices are now women. And in two Southern states, Arkansas and Tennessee, a majority of the justices are women.

When it comes to race, there is a significant inclusion of blacks on the high courts, but probably not as many as would seem appropriate, given the South’s large African-American population. Roughly 20% of the South’s population is black, but only 12% of the state supreme court justices are black. Moreover, the high courts of five Southern states – AL, AR, KY, TN & TX – have no African Americans. In Louisiana, Chief Justice Johnson is the first African-American to head the court. In the recent past, both Georgia and South Carolina have had African-American chief justices.

Judicial bodies are not legislatures, and while ideological predispositions play a role in the decision-making of the state supreme courts, the share of women or African Americans on a judicial panel may or may not influence the outcomes. However, given the South’s racial history and the many racially charged issues that come before the courts, the presence of African Americans on the region’s high courts would, at a minimum, give black residents – and black lawyers in particular – increased confidence in the rulings of the courts. The same goes for women, as gender-related issues continue to make their way through the courts, in the South as elsewhere.

The manner in which justices are chosen varies. Some are appointed by the governor, with the legislature’s concurrence. Others are elected by popular vote, in districts or statewide. And still others by a mixture of the two methods. Of note, Gov. Nathan Deal (R-GA) is currently backing a plan to add two justices to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Justices do not have an (R) or a (D) after their names, so the partisan makeup of the courts is not clear. It is safe to say, however, that given the GOP’s domination of Southern governorships and legislatures, most of those

who make it to the high courts are Republicans. In Texas, for example, all nine members of the court are Republicans. This may go a long way toward explaining the lower representation of African Americans, who by and large are Democrats, on Southern supreme courts.

Hispanics, or Latinos, are increasing in number throughout the South, but are present in substantial numbers in two states, Florida and Texas. Thus, Florida has a Cuban-American state chief justice, Jorge Labarga; the other Hispanic justice, Eva Guzman, is on the Texas Supreme Court.

White     Black    Latino           Men   Women

AL                 9            0           0                   7         2

AR               7            0           0                   3         4

FL                 4            2           1                   5         2

GA                5            2            0                   6         1

KY                7            0            0                   4         3

LA                6            1            0                  5         2

MS                8            1            0                   8         1

NC                6            1           0                   4         3

OK                8            1           0                   8         1

SC                4            1           0                   3         2

TN*              4            0           0                   1         3

TX                8            0           1                   7         2

VA                5            2           0                   4         3


Total           81          11           2                 65      29


*The Tennessee Supreme Court has one vacancy.