As increasing numbers of women during the 1990s entered law firms and corporate law departments, female attorneys also made inroads on the bench. Although males still make up the majority of judges, the gap is decreasing, particularly at the state trial court level. The gains, however, tend to be smaller at the appellate court level and in the federal system.
As the number of women judges in the profession increases, they are finding that more of their male colleagues are welcoming them to the bench. Members of screening committees in local-level jurisdictions have said they would like to see more diversity among their pool of applicants. Despite the pay disparity that has kept some attorneys in private practice from considering a judicial appointment, women on the bench find that there is much to recommend the job, including fascinating cases, intellectually demanding work, the opportunity to perform public service, freedom from client demands, greater control over their own schedules, and the opportunity to widen the diversity of the bench.
So how should female attorneys position themselves for the bench? While every judge's experience is unique, the paths taken by these three judges — each woman a trailblazer opening the way to more diverse representation on the bench — reveals that successful judicial candidates must demonstrate excellent legal skills, community involvement, and judicial temperament.
Stick with It
Watching the rioting in her hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination convinced Lisa White Hardwick at the age of seven that she wanted to be a lawyer. Now a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, and the first African-American woman to serve on a Missouri appeals court, the Honorable Hardwick says that after the riots, "I started to become focused on civil rights and the law from that experience and the effect it could have on maintaining order in our society and giving people hope about their future."
Hardwick wanted to use her legal training to remove roadblocks to the American dream. "I wanted," she says, "to enable people and to empower them to take advantage of what our society has to offer."
After receiving her juris doctorate at Harvard University, she found herself in the situation shared by many newly-minted lawyers with a desire to do public service work — she was saddled with loan repayments. A public service job was put on hold and she built a litigation practice in employment law, an area she was attracted to because of its civil rights connection.
While establishing her practice, Hardwick did not isolate herself from the Jackson County, Missouri community; she served on the boards of various organizations and was active in the bar. Once she made partner, she accepted an appointment to fill a vacancy on the county legislature in 1993 as a means of doing public service. Hardwick discovered she loved policy work, but found the campaigning and deal-making tiresome. Within two years, she applied for an open judicial position. This position was the first of five or six vacancies she interviewed for over the next four years. Her situation is not unusual, as a majority of state judges apply for positions several times prior to receiving their robes. Hardwick came to view the learning curve as part of the application process. "Each time I applied, my application improved and was more detailed because I began to realize the types of information the commissioners were looking for."
Submitting a successful application is a time-intensive and reflective process. Hardwick recommends that applicants take the time to craft a document that really puts their best foot forward, and she cautions against treating the application as merely an employment form. Often the application is the first impression members of the screening committee will have of the candidate, so the packet is not only a resume, it is a marketing document. The application and subsequent interview with the screening committee must identify the special qualities and experiences that will make the attorney stand out as uniquely qualified in a pool of very qualified candidates. "Over the course of four years," Hardwick says, "I began to do narratives of my career and attached articles about myself. I began to really try to sell myself instead of just listing my information on the application and letting them decide how good it was."
The best way to decide what information to include in an application is to talk with those who know the process best. Seek out judges who have recently been confirmed and solicit advice from past or present commission members. To craft a successful application, Hardwick urges potential judges to research the members of the commission and their concerns. "Our commission usually has two lay people and either three or four lawyers on it, one of whom is a judge. You have to weigh your applications so that you address all of these constituencies." She found that non-lawyer commissioners typically desired evidence of community involvement and a judicial temperament when relating to people who would come before a judge, while the attorneys on the commission usually focused their inquiry on legal skills and quality of judgment in the courtroom.
One of the things Hardwick learned from following up with commission members was that her initial applications to fill vacancies on the appeals court caused some commissioners concern because she had not been on a trial court bench. She changed her short-term goal and won appointment to the trial court, where she quickly proved herself and was elevated to the Court of Appeals less than two years later.
Seek Trial Experience
Given the emphasis on acquired legal skills, the process of becoming a judge does not begin with the application. Whether the application is for a county court trial judge or a federal appellate judge, the people vetting candidates want to know that applicants can oversee a courtroom. Certain career choices make for a more attractive candidate. All of the judges profiled in this article were litigators prior to joining the bench and, although litigation is not a requirement, potential judges are commonly asked to discuss their most significant cases. Hardwick says she found her trial experience helpful in convincing the nominating commission that she had the requisite legal skills to conduct a trial.
The Honorable Ann Claire Williams of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit also agrees that her career as a federal prosecutor helped convince bar associations and senators that she was qualified to be a judge.
Raised in Detroit during an era when her father, a college graduate with a psychology degree, could only find employment as a bus driver, Judge Williams grew up on stories of Constance Motley and Thurgood Marshall that encouraged community service. She was drawn to education, and spent two years teaching in the Detroit public schools while pursuing a master's degree in education, before she settled on law as a way to teach and work for social justice.
Williams completed law school determined to be a defense lawyer, but during a clerkship with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the lawyers from the U.S. Attorney's office impressed her. "I saw the quality of the work and the types of issues they dealt with and came to the realization that you got more trial work as a prosecutor than you did as a defense attorney," she says. "I also recognized what an opportunity it was to make sure that the system operated fairly. You could have a lot more influence in the place where charges were brought than always being on the receiving end."
As a young attorney in the U.S. Attorney's office, Williams' impulse to teach and help those in the community led her to approach Northwestern University law professor Ronald Kennedy about expanding his bar study program to help Chicago-area African-Americans pass the bar. The result was the Minority Legal Education Resources, Inc., which continues today and has assisted more than 3,000 individuals of all races and ethnicities with bar exam preparation.
During the course of her nine years as a prosecutor, Williams was promoted several times, all the way to chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. She ended her tenure in the office in 1985, when Illinois Senator Charles Percy asked her to apply for an opening on the federal district court in Chicago. Williams received high ratings from local bar associations and the American Bar Association, was nominated by President Reagan, and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate as the first African- American woman on that court.
Williams found that her prosecutorial experience, a background shared by nearly half of the judges on her bench, was good preparation. "Although I never practiced on the civil side other than teaching trial advocacy, arguing before the Seventh Circuit as an assistant U.S. attorney I knew the rules of evidence, and I had seen federal judges handle both civil and criminal cases on a regular basis. I just had to learn the civil rules, but I knew how cases should be tried."
Volunteer in the Community
Commissions and individuals charged with evaluating judicial candidates at all levels also look for evidence of ties to the community and judicial temperament. They want to know that a candidate is engaged in the community, so that a judge who hands down decisions that affect the lives of citizens in dramatic ways has an understanding of the community and compassion for those affected. It is not enough for applicants to say they are motivated by public service or treat opponents fairly; they require evidence of that commitment. An attorney considering a judicial service opportunity during her career should become involved in activities such as pro bono work, leadership roles on bar committees, or work with community service organizations.
Participation in bar activities or community service also can generate support for a candidacy. "Two years before I joined the District Court," Williams recalls, "I served on the trial bar program for the Northern District of Illinois at the request of the chief judge. I think that was something that was helpful to me when I went on the bench because there were many influential lawyers on that committee. I didn't know that it would have some bearing on getting the District Court nomination, but when it is time for you to be considered, you want people who are familiar with your record and your abilities to be able to speak up for you."
When President Clinton later nominated Williams to be the first African-American on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, she already had become well known to the Senate and House Judiciary Committees for her work as the chair of the Court Administration and Case Management Committee of the United States Judicial Conference, her contributions as president of the Federal Judges Association, and her record as a trial judge.
Many nomination commissions and bar evaluation committees contact opposing counsel and judges that candidates have appeared before to gauge their courtroom demeanor. An attorney's references, whether submitted with the application or solicited from colleagues by the screening committee, should demonstrate community involvement, professional competence, and the disposition to be a judge.
Hardwick adopted the strategy of providing letters from across her professional life. "When I submitted my five references, I tried to make sure that I covered a spectrum that would give commissioners a broad perspective on my personal and professional life," she says. "I always had a letter from at least one opposing counsel who would talk about how I conducted myself as an opponent. I always tried to get one from a judge who would address how I conducted myself in the courtroom, another letter from a non-lawyer who could comment on my community work, and then I'd have one each from a client and a colleague."
Politics as Wildcard
The recommendations that a candidate receives can take on a special significance when the selection process reaches the confirmation stage and becomes political. Even when a nomination commission selects a panel of candidates for a state court based upon merit, the governor's decision is rooted in political issues. When Judge Hardwick was nominated for the trial court, she was fortunate to have been a county legislator in the same party as the governor, which aided her selection.
The confirmation votes of U.S. senators on a president's nominee have become highly politicized since the failed Robert Bork nomination. Judge Susan Oki Mollway experienced the full brunt of the political wrangling that can affect judicial candidates before she was confirmed for the U.S. District Court, District of Hawaii, on June 23, 1998, some two-and-a-half years after first being nominated.
Law is something of a second career for Judge Mollway, who taught literature at the University of Hawaii and English in Japan before landing at Harvard Law School. After graduating, she returned to Honolulu and joined one of the city's larger firms, working on commercial and intellectual property litigation. Although she had no intention of becoming a judge when she joined the bar, her career path reads as a "how-to" for positioning oneself as a strong candidate.
Mollway gained lots of trial experience at the trial and appellate court levels, including a successful case before the United States Supreme Court. Also, she was very active in women's legal groups in the state, working on legislative initiatives and community service, and serving on the board of the Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
When Hawaii's senators solicited applications for a vacancy on the bench, colleagues encouraged Mollway to apply. After some initial resistance because she didn't feel that she had the political connections to succeed, she threw her hat in the ring. She says her decision to apply was mostly a matter of timing, as she was at a point in her career when she had the luxury to step back and consider long-term options instead of just her immediate case.
After emerging from the vetting process, Mollway's nomination was hung up in the Senate Judiciary Committee for years, largely because of concerns some senators expressed that her ACLU association would color her decisions on the bench.
Despite the difficulty it caused during her nomination, Mollway doesn't regret the work she did with the ACLU. "Even if lawyers are looking toward becoming a judge, I always encourage these people to do what is of interest to them. You never know what will help or hurt, so I don't think that it is right to say, ‘I should not do this,' or ‘I should not do that,' because it might hurt my chances later on." Besides, she says, the experiences gained through bar or other activities are highly worthwhile because they expand an attorney's view of the law beyond the small area in which she practices, put her in touch with areas of the community she might not otherwise know, and are personally satisfying.
Although her ACLU affiliation delayed her nomination, Mollway's work with various other organizations also garnered support for her nomination, generating letters to senators from groups involved with issues on which she had worked, as well as from voluntary bars. She was supported by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, which wanted to see the first Asian-American woman receive a lifetime federal appointment.
A Rewarding Life
While trial experience and community service can help prepare attorneys for the bench, there is no formal blueprint to becoming a judge, and each attorney brings her own strengths to the process. Judge Hardwick advises potential judges, "You need to view it as a process. You learn so much about how to become a judge by actually preparing an application and going through the interviews."
To smooth the process, Judge Williams stresses the importance of developing relationships with mentors. "There are significantly more women and African Americans serving on the bench now as opposed to when I went through the nomination process. Develop relationships with them," she advises, "so that you will be in a position to seek advice and counsel about your career path and planning for the future. We stand on the shoulders of the judicial giants and part of their legacy is to ensure that many will follow in their footsteps."
In Missouri, Hardwick has found the nominating commissions and the governor very willing to appoint women and minority attorneys to the bench, but the applicant pool is small. "We need more minorities and women who are willing to apply and accept the challenges of public service," she says. She had no qualms about leaving her practice for the satisfaction of a judicial career. "I am really able to use my legal talents to benefit others. I have more time to spend with my family, more time to be involved in the community, and more time to enjoy life. For me, that's worth a lot more than a large paycheck."
In addition to writing about legal issues, Washington D.C.-based Sean Groom writes about the outdoors and adventure travel.
From the March/April 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®