The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is undoing the diversity of the federal bench

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Derrick Johnson is the president and chief executive of the NAACP.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision and leadership in pursuing equality for all left an enduring legacy of immeasurable significance for the country that honored him this week. His call for leaders “in love with justice” and “with humanity” has taken on a special urgency during the Trump administration.

King’s devotion to equal justice included supporting racial and gender diversity on the federal bench. In 1966, he recommended Constance Baker Motley for a federal judgeship in New York. Motley was an extraordinary civil rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, and had represented King. She was the first African American woman to serve in the New York State Senate and the first woman as Manhattan borough president. Based on support from King and others, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Motley to the Southern District of New York. She was the first African American woman to serve in the federal judiciary.

That history is important to recall as President Trump’s hostility to diversity in his judicial appointments becomes increasingly apparent. Last week, the White House announced a new slate of white male nominees, consistent with its record over the past two years. Of more than 150 Trump nominees to lifetime positions, only three have been African American. No African Americans or Latinos have been nominated to federal circuit courts.

Trump has appointed  no black women to the bench. Not one. The last African American woman appointed to a federal judgeship was President Barack Obama’s nominee  Wilhelmina Wright, confirmed by the Senate in 2016.    

Trump has no excuse. Scores of extremely qualified African American women are practicing law or sitting on state and local courts around the country. This pool of candidates has existed for decades. Forty years ago, President Jimmy Carter appointed seven black women to judgeships. Signaling that judicial diversity is not a partisan issue, President George W. Bush appointed eight black women, including two to appellate courts. Obama appointed a record 26 African American women to the judiciary.

The paucity of diverse Trump appointees is only half the story. Diversity on the bench inspires confidence and trust in courts by the communities they serve. Differences in backgrounds and perspectives enhance the judicial decision-making process.

Progress in judicial diversity has fluctuated from administration to administration over the past several decades, but it hasn’t stopped completely until now. Presidents committed to diversifying the judiciary have generally increased representation or at least sought to maintain it amid judicial retirements. Trump’s abrupt halt to diverse appointments is dramatically altering the composition of the judiciary. It will take years, if not decades, to recover.

For example, the nation once again has an all-white appellate court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit covers Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. The court recently lost its only African American judge, Ann Claire Williams, to retirement. Williams was appointed to the district court by President Ronald Reagan and elevated to the circuit court by President Bill Clinton. Although Trump has had four opportunities to maintain the diversity of this court, he selected a white nominee for each seat.  

Trump has also damaged diversity on the 4th Circuit, which was not racially integrated until 2001 and whose jurisdiction includes the highest percentage of African American residents in the nation. Trump nominated  Allison Rushing, who is white, to the seat held by the court’s only black female jurist, Allyson Duncan, a George W. Bush appointee who retired.

Trump’s exclusionary appointments are thinning the ranks of African American women serving on federal appellate courts. At the beginning of Trump’s term, seven black women sat on these courts. Following retirements, only four black women remain, and three of these judges are now eligible for retirement. Someday soon, only one black woman may be serving on America’s appellate courts.   

Fifty-three years ago, at King’s urging, the first African American woman was appointed to the federal bench. Since then, one might have expected to see remarkable progress to increase representation of all communities on the nation’s courts. But judicial diversity is endangered under the Trump presidency. The administration must do better, much better, to preserve the judicial system’s fairness and integrity. As King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

Read more:

Kevin Schaul and Kevin Uhrmacher: How Trump is shifting the most important courts in the country

Sean Sullivan and Mike DeBonis: With little fanfare, Trump and McConnell reshape the nation’s circuit courts

Rorie Spill Solberg and Eric N. Waltenburg: Are Trump’s judicial nominees really being confirmed at a record pace? The answer is complicated.

Scott Nover: How a Trump judicial nominee reignited the debate over dwarf tossing