Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Female presence at Supreme Court declines -- and not just on the bench

By Nancy Jane Moore

The New York Times reports that the current Supreme Court justices have hired only seven women to serve as law clerks for the coming term -- out of 37 total clerkships.

This is less than half the number in the last term, when there were 14 women originally and a fifteenth was added after Samuel Alito was confirmed. It's also the first year since 1994 that there were fewer than 10 women clerks.

Not only that, but this drop comes at a time when the number of women law school graduates is just below 50 percent. It also comes after the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court clerkships are considered a major career-building move in the legal profession. Several of the current justices were once clerks and The Times reports that law firms are offering $200,000 bonuses to former clerks.

According to The Times, the court's sole female justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- who hired two women and two men as clerks -- was already aware of the situation and had mentioned it in a recent speech. Other justices dismissed the situation as a "random variation," The Times said.

Some observers speculated that there were fewer women clerks in the federal circuit courts of appeal, which is a source for Supreme Court clerks. I recently examined the list of judges on the circuit courts and found that a clear majority of them were appointed by Republican presidents. I'd also note that the most conservative member of the Supreme Court -- Antonin Scalia -- has hired only 2 women clerks in the last seven years, out of a total of 28.

Draw your own conclusions as to whether there's any correlation between the political leanings of the justices and lower court judges and who they hire. There are, of course, some very prominent right wing women on the circuit court bench. It would be interesting to know how many women clerks they've hired.

The Times didn't provide any figures on the racial make up of the new crop of clerks, except to observe that "the clerkship cadre remains overwhelmingly white." Women may be underrepresented in the top echelons of the legal profession, but minorities make up an even tinier percentage of those in powerful positions.

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