With the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court of the United States, the U.S. will finally have a Black woman sitting on its highest court, adding a critical perspective and making the Court more reflective of our country’s people. Justice Jackson also brings important experience as the Court’s first justice with experience as a public defender.
Reflecting on Justice Thurgood Marshall’s legacy, many of his colleagues acknowledged the importance of his personal experience and professional background in civil rights and criminal defense to his approach to the law and additions to the Court’s deliberations. Justice William Brennan stated that Marshall “spoke from first-hand knowledge of the law’s failure to fulfill its promised protections for so many Americans.”
Brennan’s intuition about the importance of Marshall’s professional experience has been validated by empirical research on the differences between judges’ decision based on their backgrounds. Studies have shown that former corporate attorneys and prosecutors give on average longer criminal sentences and side more frequently with corporate defendants in employment disputes. Recognizing the importance of a judicial bench with balanced professional experience, President Biden has prioritized filling vacancies with judges from underrepresented professional backgrounds representing individuals, such as public defenders and legal aid and plaintiffs’ litigation attorneys.
However, in most cases, state law has a more significant impact on our residents’ day-to-day lives than federal law and has the opportunity to provide greater protections. This being the case, it is especially important that the state judicial bench is professionally diverse as well. To assess the state of Connecticut’s bench, the UConn Law chapter of the People’s Parity Project recently released Imbalanced Justice: Professional Diversity of the Connecticut Judicial Bench, a report on the professional diversity of Connecticut judges. We found that the state bench is heavily skewed toward judges with corporate and prosecutorial experience, with relatively few judges with experience as public defenders and legal aid and plaintiffs’ litigation attorneys. At the appellate level – the courts that decide what the state’s laws mean and what our residents’ rights are under the state constitution and statutes – 75% of judges had corporate and/or prosecutorial experience. There was only one justice with legal aid, one with plaintiffs’ litigation experience, and not a single public defender.
Justice Christine Keller, the only justice with legal aid experience, recently announced her retirement, and Governor Lamont is expected to nominate a successor this month. Considering the lack of professional diversity on the state bench, it is critical that the Governor nominate someone with experience representing individuals rather than the corporations and governments that regular people far too often face in court. There are several judges in the lower courts with important experience representing the people of Connecticut – and even more off the bench – who have impeccable credentials for the Connecticut Supreme Court.
A more balanced judiciary could have a real impact on individuals trying to vindicate their rights. Recent state Supreme Court cases have, in split decisions, sided with the government on what constitutes a confession coerced by police and with corporations on whether arbitration is equivalent to a trial on the merits, among other important decisions.
Of course, judges strive to be impartial in their decisions, but it cannot be denied that professional experience impacts a judge’s view of the law. Unless we start to balance the courts away from its current corporate and prosecutorial bias, we will never have a judiciary that truly works for the people. To ensure that we all have a voice in our courts, Governor Lamont and other stakeholders must commit to rebalancing the judiciary and prioritizing the nomination and confirmation of candidates with experience representing individuals, starting with Justice Keller’s replacement, so we can have the pro-people judiciary that we deserve.
Steve Kennedy is a Connecticut native living in Newtown, a third-year student at UConn Law, and the Organizing & Network Director of the People’s Parity Project (PPP). PPP is a nationwide network of law students and new attorneys organizing to unrig the legal system and build a justice system that values people over profits.