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Arizona court diversity urged as Ketanji Brown Jackson awaits Supreme Court confirmation

As Democrats in the U.S. Senate push for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, judicial advocates are actively pushing for greater diversity in Arizona’s courts.

If confirmed, Jackson would be the first Black woman to ever sit on the Supreme Court. Jackson was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2021. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote Monday on whether to confirm Jackson, sending the nomination to the full Senate for consideration, according to USA TODAY.

The Arizona Advocacy Foundation, a nonprofit committed to a representative political system, compiled a diversity report for Arizona courts in April 2021.

Although Arizona’s population is about 55% white, the report found, “the most racially diverse and representative court, the Justice Court, is 80% white.” County-level justice courts handle cases ranging from traffic disputes to harassment cases.

The report, which analyzes the racial and gender breakdown of superior, appellate, justice and the Supreme Court of Arizona, also found that the Latino community, which is a third of the state’s population, is the most underrepresented racial demographic in those courts. The report did not look at municipal courts.

“The lack of representation of Arizona’s judiciary poses a danger to the people of Arizona,” the report says. “Judges who believe that they are fair can still have ingrained biases that affect their rulings.”

Marcos Tapia is the associate counsel at Chicanos Por La Causa and former president of Los Abogados, Arizona’s Hispanic Bar Association, which encourages and supports Latinos in the legal field.

To diversify the bench, he said, the whole legal profession needs to be diversified first.

“When I was in elementary school and we had career day, there was no attorney that looked like me,” he said. “It’s a topic that’s been on a lot of people’s minds, especially the legal field.”

Tapia said Los Abogados encourages students of color to pursue careers as attorneys or in the legal field.

“Any time I really saw anything about attorneys or lawyers, it was because somebody in my community was on the wrong side of it,” he said. “If you look at the bench, it really was not reflective of our community. … The way that our justice system is set up and the way it works, you get a lot more people in front of these judges that don’t look like the judges.”

Elena Nethers is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the State Bar of Arizona, a nonprofit organization supervised by the state Supreme Court that provides developmental programs for people looking to pursue a legal career.

“Some of the programs that we do are pretty effective at taking down some of the barriers that may exist for these young attorneys who don’t think they have it in them to be a judge,” Nethers said.

The State Bar has two annual events focused on increasing diversity. The first is Meet the Bench, in which the 16 attorneys of the Bar Leadership Institute arrange a panel of state and federal judges discussing the paths they took to the bench.

“They also talk a little bit about some of their efforts to diversify, but also what it’s like to lead from within the courts,” Nethers said.

The second event is similar to Meet the Bench and takes place at the annual State Bar of Arizona Convention.

The Phoenix Municipal Court also puts emphasis on making sure its court staff is representative of its community along with the bench. Barton Fears, Phoenix Municipal Court general counsel and public information officer, said the diversity of court staff members is just as important as having diverse judges, because in many cases, people that go to court will deal more with staff.

Fears said efforts extend beyond encouraging people of color to become a lawyer or judge. He said court staff hold job fairs and recruiting events at high schools to encourage students to work in the courts.

“At the end of the day, what we’re looking for is a court that is representative of the community and to produce justice through excellence,” Fears said. “Most of the time in arguments about diversification, the justice system will focus only on the bench. There’s no focus on the court staff, but that’s just as important.”

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Screenshot via Senate Judiciary Committee.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson answers questions on March 22, 2022, from senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee during her confirmation hearing.

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