International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Winter 2013 Issue



Women and the Judiciary; Women in the Judiciary

Dr. James G. Apple

By: James G. Apple, Editor-in-Chief, International Judicial Monitor and President, International Judicial Academy

During the decade of the 90s there were two occasions when I was traveling in the Middle East. My itinerary in both of them included a visit to Egypt, visiting the courts in Cairo and talking to judges there. On one of those occasions I asked one of my judicial hosts about the absence of women as judges in Egypt. He admitted that there were no female judges in his country. I asked him why. He replied that women judges would be too lenient in judging and sentencing persons accused of crimes. In other words, to use the phrase common in U.S. legal circles, women judges, according to my host, would be “soft on crime.”

Years later, the International Judicial Academy was conducting a seminar for U.S. judges in The Hague and Paris. Our visit to the City of Light included a stop at the Palais de Justice on the Ile de la Cite. We stopped in one of the courtrooms in the Palais to observe a trial conducted under the French legal system. When we entered the courtroom I noted that the case was being heard by three judges, all female. This situation triggered an inquiry based on my experience in Egypt several years earlier. I inquired of my host about the French experience with women judges, especially as that experience related to the conduct and outcome of criminal cases. Were women judges in fact easier on persons accused of crimes, I inquired of my host, a French judge who worked at a legal research institute in Paris. “No,” he replied, “it is just the opposite. Women judges are much harder on persons accused and convicted of crimes, and give out much more hard sentences than men judges.”

The point of these two anecdotes is obviously to demonstrate the huge difference between belief and reality with respect to women in the judiciary, and to falsify at least one argument often raised against the whole idea of women judges, or raised at least to restrict their numbers in a particular legal system. There are undoubtedly other “myths” that are used by those opposed to female judges.

I first became aware of the broad issue of women in the judiciary when I was still employed as a senior staff officer at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington in the decade of the 90s. The occasion for inquiry was a short research project relating to the makeup of judges in the federal courts in the United States. I came across one table which revealed that women in the federal courts constituted about 10-12% of the total number of federal judges in the United States. The number of women judges in the state courts was higher, but not by much.

I recently reviewed some current statistical studies about women in the judiciary in the U.S. and found that the situation has improved significantly in the last decade. In a statistical study published in February of this year by the Commission on Women in the Profession of the American Bar Association, of the total number of all federal judges in the United States (1,874), including Supreme Court justices, circuit court of appeals judges, district court judges, bankruptcy judges and magistrate (assistant) judges, 24.1% are women. In the Supreme Court of the United States, with three justices, 33.3 % are women while in the circuit courts of appeals, 30.9% of the judges are women,. In the U.S. district courts (trial courts) approximately 30% are women.

In the state courts, the situation is comparable. Among all state courts, trial and appellate, 27% are women. In the highest courts and intermediate courts of appeal in the states, the percentage of women judges is 32% in each category. In the general jurisdiction trial courts (circuit or superior courts), the percentage of women judges is 25%, and in the lower, limited jurisdiction courts (district courts) 31% of the judges are female.

The situation of women in the federal judiciary has vastly improved in the past five years as a result of appointments by President Barack Obama. Of the 217 judicial appointments he has made since taking office, 40% (87) have been women. And while such improvement is to be applauded, there are pockets among the federal court systems where there are either no women judges or a very small number that does not amount to adequate representation. For instance the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has only one woman judge among the ten active judges on that court. And she is the only female judge ever to have sat on that court. A similar situation exists in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. It has also been noted that “women are vastly underrepresented on the Third Circuit (where they make up about 15% of the judges and the Fourth Circuit (about 27%).

In both state and federal courts, women have a 27.1% representation, a significant improvement over the situation that existed in the mid 1990s.

It should be noted that the judges themselves are better at selecting law clerks who are women than the general populace and politicians are in selecting female judges. Among all courts, federal and state, the judges filled 51% of the available judicial clerkships with recent women law graduates. In the state courts, 54.8% of the law clerks are female, while 45.6% of federal judge law clerkships are filled by women.

Elsewhere in this issue of the International Judicial Monitor there is a book review of a recently published biography of the first woman judge in the United Kingdom, Rose Heilbron, written by her daughter. It is a compelling story of a very talented woman lawyer who overcame many hurdles to reach the highest ranks of barristers in the U.K., and who was finally recognized by her appointment to the bench at age 42   in 1956. However, a telling part of her story is that while she was the first female judge in Britain (appointed Recorder in 1956), she was never elevated to the higher ranks of the British judiciary, such as the Court of Appeal or the Law Lords. Instead she was shunted off to a less distinguished and prestigious Family Court Division when she was appointed to the High Court (rather than the Queen’s Bench or Chancery Division) where she completed her judicial tenure.


Judging from recent commentary coming out of Britain, the situation has not much improved there since Judge Heilbron was sitting. Last fall the Council of Europe issued a 442-page report on the status of the judiciary among its 47 members. The report included the gender of the members of the judiciary in the member states, which revealed that only 23% of the judges in England are women, and only 21% of Scottish judges are female. This proved to be an embarrassing statistic. Only two member countries had a lower percentage – Armenia, with slightly less than 23%, and Albania, where only 9% of the judges are women. By way of contrast, in Slovenia 78 % of the judges are women, and in Greece, the percentage stands at 64%. A total of fifteen other European countries “can count on more than 50% of women on the bench.”

The cause of female judicial representation in Britain received another slap in the face last summer when the then current President of the Supreme Court, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers was replaced by Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury. However one of the three candidates for the Presidency was Lady Brenda Hale, the only woman on the British Supreme Court, appointed over eight years ago. She, like Rose Heilbron in an earlier time, was passed over. The British judiciary had another chance to make amends and at least correct the gender representational imbalance in February of this year in the selection of three new justices to fill out the Supreme Court’s full complement of 12. But the judiciary again demurred. All three new justices were men.

To his credit Lord Neuberger has begun to speak out about the sad situation in his courts. In an early March edition of The Guardian, it was reported that “Neuberger accepts there is a problem with diversity in the higher judiciary and is keen to address the imbalance.” In addition Lady Hale recently spoke out about the sad situation in Britain, again as reported in The Guardian in late February. The news article noted her warning that “the UK is 'out of step' with the rest of the world’ in terms of judicial diversity.”

The United Kingdom is generally viewed in the wider world as a very enlightened society. It is the home of the common law, one of the two great and most prevalent systems of law in the world. Some of the great jurists of the world down through history were and are English judges. Yet its present judiciary is antediluvian when considering the current lack of representation of different segments of its society, including women. And the fact that the percentages of women judges in the U.S. judiciary are not that much better than those in the U.K. suggests that the U.S. judiciary, like the U.K. judiciary, is “out of step with the rest of the world” in terms of numbers of women judges at all levels of the respective court systems. Both the U.S. and the U.K. have a lot of work to do to, in the words of The Guardian, “redress the gender imbalance” that exists in both countries.

I often present lectures on “empowerment” techniques that might be of use to judges and court officers from other countries in promoting the judiciary and courts. When I first embarked on this effort several years ago, I contacted a former and early president of the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ), based in Washington, and asked her how women judges in the United States went about empowering themselves to promote women in the judiciary to achieve the success that they have had. She provided me with a list of activities in which U.S. women judges engaged to further their cause.

The first was creating a national organization (which resulted in the NAWJ). This accomplished two purposes. It provided a way to deliver education programs to women judges about a variety of subjects that affected their performance as judges and also in their private lives. And it also provided the basis for “networking” between women judges from different parts of the United States, and a source of moral support on which they could rely when matters were going badly in their local jurisdictions.

Creating local organizations of women judges was also another activity that proved useful, as a way of carrying out locally what was learned from the national organization. Women judges were also encouraged to use their existing connections with men and women who were leaders or prominent  in their communities who were not judges to provide support and carry the message of their cause.

The NAWJ also encouraged women judges to establish alliances with other groups with the same or similar purposes, such as human rights organizations and conservation organizations. These other groups would often be sympathetic with the cause of more women in the judiciary and assist them in promoting their message. Another method was for women judges to volunteer for committee assignments in local, state and national bar associations, and other law related institutions, so that they could later claim rights to leadership positions in those organizations and institutions.

And finally, women judges sought out a prominent national spokesperson to carry their message around the country and to serve as a symbol of the movement. Fortunately U.S. women judges had a ready-made national spokesperson and symbol for their movement, in the form of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was primarily by these methods that women judges gradually gained acceptance at the national level as well as the local level in the United States. The success of the women judges in the United States that has been achieved to date and the methods used to achieve that success should provide a beacon for women judges in other parts of the world to begin to organize and empower their gender for better representation at all levels of the court system in their countries.

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2013 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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