Nearly 80 years ago, a widowed Durham woman made history when she became the first female judge in North Carolina. Marie Dowd Walker faced an uphill battle as a juvenile court judge in 1934, and was even replaced by a man without warning after six loyal years of service.
It’s been almost a century since Walker doffed her judicial robes and first banged the gavel. Were she here today, she’d probably expect to see an equal number of women and men in the courtroom. It’d be well within reason to expect that women would have reached parity by now with men in terms of judicial appointments. Unfortunately, that just isn’t true.
Here in 2014—the future!—we are still lauding districts’ first appointments of female judges, or female judges of color. In fact, there are nine district courts in the US where a woman has still never served as judge. Despite the fact that women make up 50% of law school graduates, men make up 2/3 of judges nationwide.
North Carolina stood a chance at helping balance this gender disparity. In 2009, both NC Senators—Richard Burr and Kay Hagan—recommended Jennifer May-Parker, a woman of color, to the Eastern Carolina federal bench. She would have been the first woman of color to serve in this role, and in it she would have presided over cases in our state’s 44 eastern-most counties.
It took the White House years to nominate May-Parker, but now that she’s received the green light from President Obama, her appointment is being blocked by NC’s own Senator Burr. According to an archaic rule, senators from an appointee’s state need to give approval before the senate can consider confirming a candidate. Senator Burr has withheld his approval without explanation, a move some are calling a filibuster.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Carolina District has no judicial leadership. It’s been without a judge since 2006, the longest district court vacancy in the country. Although the court will hear some cases, without May-Parker—or another federal appointee– judges of lesser court face overwhelming caseloads and delays.
With a single message to the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Burr could solve the problem of the empty seat, and strike a blow for equality. As he recommended May-Parker for the position previously, he should have little compunction about reasserting that endorsement.
Statewide groups have protested Burr’s block, and have called on the Senator to at least explain why he is contributing to the “judicial emergency” of leaving a federal judge seat open for eight years. Burr remains silent on the issue.
Having women fill half of all judge positions is not just a dream or a numbers game. When women preside over a courtroom, it gives other women another chance for their voices to be heard. A more diverse range of experiences on the bench means that those who stand before the judge have a higher chance of being understood and empathized with, no matter who they are or where they come from.