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Courts need more women judges

  • Published Friday, March 12, 2010, at 12:04 a.m.

Courts should reflect the people they serve. Yet the Sedgwick County District Court bench is 100 percent male, and women hold just 17 percent of the state judgeships and 20 percent of the federal judicial positions in Kansas. Most of the state's various courts score poorly on ethnic diversity as well.

To its credit, the League of Women Voters Wichita-Metro sees a problem with this status quo, which is part of why it has begun a two-year effort to promote diversity in the courts.

The local initiative aligns with the national and Kansas leagues' project called "Safeguarding U.S. Democracy: The Quest for a More Diverse Judiciary." It kicked off last week with a talk by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Karen Humphreys of Wichita, who is a former Sedgwick County District Court judge and one of just three women judges in the community, along with Wichita Municipal Court Judges Jennifer Lind-Spahn and Jennifer Jones.

"I believe that women's equal representation matters, because it is critical to a representative democracy and to equal citizenship," Humphreys told her audience.

She acknowledged that diversity isn't mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but noted our society has become pluralistic over time. Now, "to form 'a more perfect union,' we need improvement and diversity in our governmental institutions," Humphreys said.

Finding a better balance at the District Court level won't be easy. The pool is limited: Though 47 percent of students in law school are women and 31 percent of lawyers are women nationally, perhaps 15 percent of the partners at local law firms are women.

Plus, most Sedgwick County judges must run for their jobs in partisan elections. Fundraising and politicking aren't for everybody — and aren't easy for anybody.

"You have to raise money and you have to walk in parades and you have to put out yard signs, and it's a lot of work," said Humphreys.

She prefers the "merit selection" of judges used in about half of Kansas counties, where the governor chooses from among three finalists identified by a local screening panel.

Politics surely played a role in 2008 when Sedgwick County, despite gaining two judgeships for a total 28, lost its lone female judge, Rebecca Pilshaw, in an election that saw the defeats of four other woman candidates. Not coincidentally, all eight contested seats in 2008 went to Republicans.

Meanwhile, Douglas County, where judges are chosen by merit selection, has had a female majority on its District Court since last year.

"Think about that," Humphreys told her audience.

The community should do more than that, by joining the League of Women Voters' effort.

Will more women decide to run for judge? Will campaign contributors and the legal community support them? Will voters do their part? The next round of judicial elections in Sedgwick County next fall, with eight judgeships at stake, will offer a good opportunity to find out.

— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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