Dec 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Latinas head for the federal bench

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela. Photos: Tom Williams, Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

A number of Latina judges recently have been nominated to U.S. federal courts, which for many years saw few Hispanics and Afro-Latinos on their benches.

Why it matters: Decisions made in courtrooms can affect people in ways large and small, with cases on voting rights, abortion, healthcare and more playing out in courts across the country.

  • That is also seen at local courts: in California, the state with the highest Latino population, even many Superior Courts in majority-Hispanic counties have no Latino judges.

By the numbers: Since 1789, only 140 of more than 3,400 federal judges have identified as Hispanic or Afro-Latinos. Of those, 34 have been women, according to Federal Judicial Center data.

  • Although Latinos compose 18.7% of the U.S. population, the country's largest minority, they represent around 7% of all federal judges. For Latinas, that number hovers at around 2%.
  • That percentage has been practically unchanged since 2009, when Sonia Sotomayor became the first Supreme Court justice of Latino descent.

Details: Myrna Pérez, a voting rights expert, was confirmed as a Second District Court of Appeals judge in late October.

The big picture: The lack of diversity in the justice system goes beyond the bench. Not enough Latinos are in prosecutorial jobs, law firms or law schools, which "feed" the bench.

  • Experts pin the low Latino participation on the often prohibitive costs of getting a law degree, when U.S. Hispanics already have low graduation rates at the undergraduate level.
  • With “proportionately fewer Latinos in the most selective institutions,” since most at least start at a community college, “the ranks of prospective Latino lawyers are thin,” DePaul’s law school dean Jennifer Rosato Perea told NBC back in 2017.
  • She added that since many are first-generation college graduates, “there are issues of mentoring, preparation, and support.” 

Of note: Threats against federal judges have increased in the last five years. One person targeted a Latina judge, Esther Salas, specifically because of her ethnicity.

  • The man went to her home, fatally shot her son when he answered the door and injured her husband the summer of last year. Salas has returned to the bench and is a vocal advocate of increasing judicial security.
  • The FBI also found that the gunman, a lawyer named Roy Den Hollander, had papers and diatribes related to Sotomayor.

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