Representation Matters

Have you ever had an experience where you intellectually know something, but don’t fully “know” it until you’ve experienced it on an emotional level? This happened to me and the experience has really made an impression.

I’ve written before about institutional sexism in the court system but now, my perspective has changed.

In Vermont, judges rotate every year, even though one judge can stay in an assignment for up to two years. My county has three judges: Civil, Criminal and Family. (There is a Probate judge, however that court is separate and the judge always remains the same.) The rotation occurred a couple of weeks ago. This rotation has drastically changed my perspective because all of the judges are women. ALL. OF. THEM.

I’m actually quite shocked at how it’s affected me. We knew that the judges were being assigned to my county. We had time to prepare, but the first day that I walked into court knowing that every judge in my county is a woman, I had such an unexpected wave of emotion that I’ve had to contain it for the sake of professionalism.

I’m am so happy that I’m bordering on giddy. I sometimes get teary-eyed thinking about this. I want to impress these judges more than I’ve ever wanted since I first entered the courtroom. The funny thing is that I have argued before each judge separately in the past, but something has changed.

No man is making any judicial decisions here. Women hold all the power and make all the decisions. It’s exciting.

Now, do I think that these women will be better judges because they are women? No. Do I think they have some special abilities because they are women? No. Will I agree with every decision they make? No. Will I complain about them or their decision at some point? Yes. (This is part of the gig. Defense attorneys complain about prosecutors. Prosecutors complain about defense attorneys. Both complain about judges.)

What I do know is that these judges aren’t ever going to hold my gender against me. I don’t have to worry about them hearing my argument and then crediting that argument to the male attorney who argued the same thing after I did. I won’t have to bring my male boss into court to argue that a particular ruling isn’t fair (after I’ve made the argument) to have the argument validated. (This has happened.)

I keep having the thought, “this is what men have enjoyed for centuries.” Now, I’m experiencing it for the first time and I almost don’t know what to do with it because I’ve never experienced this situation. I’ve been used to having to navigate gender discrimination for so long that I don’t really know anything else. And, that’s not to say that the male judges I’ve argued before are discriminating against women, but gender discrimination is so pervasive that it’s always present everywhere women are, even if only subconscious.

I can also understand how men are feeling like they are losing power in this way. Women are used to discrimination. Men have not ever experienced gender discrimination in a courtroom. Men were always in power and they didn’t have to worry about their gender being held against them. Other things, such as social class, have been worries for men, but never gender. It’s a new feeling for men and it’s uncomfortable. Are women judges going to discriminate against men in their courtroom on the basis of their gender? Probably not, but men will never know, the same way that women will never know. It’s their turn to be uncomfortable.

This experience has also made me re-evaluate what equality really means. I used to think that equality meant half women/half men, but I don’t think that really covers it. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg once stated that she will be satisfied when all nine justices on the Supreme Court are women because the Supreme Court has been all men without any questions. The true sign of gender equality will be when all nine justices are women and no one questions the Supreme Court’s legitimacy. The reason is that every time a seat on the Supreme Court opens, it is possible that the best candidate for that position happens to be a woman.

This experience also makes me think about people of color and their experience with the Vermont court system. I know of no judge in Vermont who is Black. So, everyday when a Black person goes before a judge in this state, they will stand before a White judge. Like women, they are probably used to discrimination. And, they are likely always concerned that the color of their skin will be held against them, even if only on a subconscious level. To be fair, given the state demographics (98% White), the probability of a Black judge will naturally be lower, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do something about it.

We should be aggressively recruiting, training and grooming Black attorneys in Vermont to be qualified for judicial appointment. More than that, we need to be aggressively preparing attorneys of color across the country for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. Why can’t all nine justices be people of color? Why can’t the list of the qualified judges for the President to choose from all be people of color? Until this happens, we are not equal.

People of color need the opportunity to experience what I currently am experiencing: Equality in its true form. It may be a brief experience for me, but I have learned so completely (not just intellectually) that Representation Matters.


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