The Changing Face of the Federal Judiciary

August 17, 2009

Executive Summary

Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court highlights attention again on the Court’s demographic makeup. She is the first Hispanic member and third woman. There have been two African-American appointees.

The rest of the federal judiciary is also changing demographically. Sotomayor has been part of three trends since the 1950s—an increase in the proportion of women and in members of racial and ethnic minorities and a decrease in the proportion of district judges appointed, as was she, from among private lawyers.

This paper lays out some basic data on these changes,* as we await the confirmation of President Obama’s initial nominees to the lower federal courts. The paper does not engage the debate—illustrated by the controversy over Sotomayor’s “wise Latina women” remark—over how much judges’ backgrounds do or should influence their decision-making. Nor does it postulate a proper proportion of various demographic groups on the federal bench. That matter is tied up with the proportion of members of those groups in the relatively small pool of lawyers whom judicial selectors consider professionally qualified for appointment to the federal bench—hardly a precise definition—and who fit within the varying political party calculi that influence federal judicial recruitment.


I developed race and gender data after expressions of interest at a January 2009 meeting of the Justice at Stake Campaign, and vocational background data for a paper at the May 2009 conference sponsored by the Aspen Institute and Sandra Day O’Connor project at Georgetown Law Center. Data here come principally from the Federal Judicial Center’s Federal Judicial Biographical Database (

, last viewed August 11, 2009) and are not surprising to federal court watchers familiar with Professor Sheldon Goldman’s and his colleagues’ periodic reports on federal judicial appointments, most recently in “W. Bush’s Judicial Legacy: Mission Accomplished” in the May-June 2009 issue of the journal Judicature, which includes other related articles.