Judicial Firsts: 13 Judges who Pioneered Judicial Diversity (Pt. 1)

For the first time in many years, judicial nominees have been so diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation that the White House can’t help talking about it.

“The men and women the President has nominated to enforce our laws and deliver justice represent his unprecedented commitment [to] expanding the diversity of our nation’s highest courts,” read the infographic the White House released.

Of the 63 judicial nominees currently in the Senate, 27 are women, 12 are African Americans, 5 are of Hispanic descent, 4 are Asian Americans, 1 is Native American, and 3 are openly gay.

The excitement of the White House is understandable. As of August 2009, reports have it that 70% of federal judges were White men, 15% were White women, 10% were minority (African American and Hispanic) males, and 3% were minority females. The federal judiciary as a whole continued to be heavily dominated by White males.

However, recent appointees have included proportionately fewer White males as highlighted by this year’s judicial pool. This is a most welcome development because an ideal bench is representative of the larger community, including women, people of color, members of the LGBT community, other underrepresented groups, and people who fit into more than one of the above groups.

Diversity in the legal system improves the quality of justice while building confidence in all communities that American courts are fair and impartial. And, in order to function effectively, every American must have the utmost confidence in their courts.

While we cherish this good news, let us pause for a moment to remember the trailblazers, the people whose appointment to the Bench broke ground.

First Ladies of the Bench

Florence Ellinwood Allen’s life and judicial service can be described in many firsts. She was the first woman assistant county prosecutor in the United States and the first woman elected to a judicial office in Ohio. Later, she became the first woman in the nation to be elected to a court of the last resort—the Supreme Court of Ohio (1922)—and the first woman appointed to a federal appeals court judgeship (1934).

President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Allen for the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Senate unanimously approved her nomination on March 23, 1934. She was the first woman appointed and confirmed to a federal appeals court judgeship.

She served on the Court of Appeals until she retired in October 1959, and was chief judge of that court in the later years of her service.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor holds the distinction of being the first woman to be appointed to the US Supreme Court. She was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Born in El Paso, Texas, Sandra Day O’Connor was elected to two terms in the Arizona state senate. Her nomination to the Supreme Court received unanimous Senate approval.

As a justice, O’Connor was a pioneering force on the Supreme Court. She’ll long be remembered for acting as a sturdy guiding hand in the court’s decisions, and for serving a swing vote in many important cases, including the upholding of Roe v. Wade.

A moderate conservative, she tended to vote in line with her politically conservative nature, but she still considered her cases very carefully.

She retired in 2006 after serving for 24 years. However, she has continued her judicial service by hearing cases in the United States Courts of Appeals. In recognition of her lifetime accomplishments, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

African Americans

Judge Jane Matilda Bolin was the first African American woman to graduate from Yale Law School, the first to join the New York City Bar Association, and the first to join the New York City Law Department.

But her greatest distinction came when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York City appointed her as a judge of the Domestic Relations Court in 1939, becoming the first black woman to serve as a judge in the US. She remained in the court for 40 years, with her appointment being renewed three times, and served until she was required to retire at age 70. In 1962, she renamed the court the Family Court.

She worked to encourage racially integrated child services, ensuring that probation officers were assigned without regard to race or religion, and making sure childcare agencies that received public funds did not refuse service to children based on race or ethnicity.

Justice Thurgood Marshall was the first African American justice of the US Supreme Court, serving from October 1967 until October 1991.

Before becoming a judge, Marshall was a lawyer who was best known for his high success rate in arguing before the Supreme Court. In 1936 he joined the legal staff of the NAACP. As its chief counsel (1938–61), he argued more than 30 cases before the highest court, successfully challenging racial segregation, most notably in higher education. His presentation of the argument against the separate but equal doctrine achieved its greatest impact with the landmark decision handed down in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

Until his retirement, Justice Marshall established a record for supporting the voiceless American. He possessed a profound sensitivity to injustice by way of the crucible of racial discrimination in this country. He leaves a legacy that expands that early sensitivity to include all of America’s voiceless.

Asian Americans

Judge Herbert Choy was the first lawyer of South Korean ancestry to be admitted to the bar and the first Asian American appointed as a judge to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 1971.

Born to parents who worked in Hawaii’s sugar plantations, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Hawaii in 1938 and his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1941. His parents were part of the first waves of Korean immigrants to come to Hawaii.

While he served in the 9th Circuit, Choy maintained his home in Hawaii, choosing to travel 5,000 miles once a month from Honolulu to San Francisco and back to hear cases.

Choy and other 9th Circuit judges’ were responsible for reviewing the decisions of federal judges in Hawaii, Alaska, California, and six other Western states.

But Choy, a Republican who described himself as a “middle of the roader with some conservative tendencies,” preferred to stay out the limelight, despite his illustrious career.

As a result of his distinguished service, Judge Choy has received numerous awards, most notably the Order of Civil Merit from the Republic of Korea.

Judge Dick Yin Wong was the first Asian American appointed to a federal district court. Born on September 13, 1920 in Honolulu, Hawaii, Judge Wong graduated with honors from the University of Hawaii in 1942 with a Bachelors of Arts degree.

After being honorably discharged from the Army after WWII, he studied law at Northwestern University Law School. Upon graduation in 1951, Judge Wong returned to Hawaii and practiced law while lecturing part-time at the University of Hawaii.

On April 25, 1973, Judge Wong was appointed to the US District Court for the District of Hawaii by President Ford. His appointment made him the first Asian American to be appointed as a federal district court judge. He continued to serve until his death on December 26, 1978. He left behind a legacy of brilliant and dedicated service in many professional capacities.