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Ford Scholars ProgramBlack Judges and the U.S. Judiciary

When Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, she stirred up some controversy by suggesting that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences” would bring some unique skills and perspectives to the bench. Assistant Political Science Prof. Taneisha Means says she has a hunch the same might be true of African-American judges, who remain under-represented in state courts across the country.

Assistant Political Science Professor Taneisha Means and Ford Scholar Kaitlin Prado ’19Photo: Karl Rabe

This summer, with the help of Ford Scholar Kaitlin Prado ’19, Means is preparing to contact dozens of black judges to seek their observations about their role in the judicial system. The judges’ responses will be the subject of a book, tentatively titled Black in the American Courthouse: Black Judges and Representation in the 21st Century, that Means expects to publish in 2020. “The last nationwide survey of black judges was in the 1970s, and obviously a lot has changed since then,” she says.

Prado’s first task this summer was transcribing interviews Means conducted with 30 black judges when she wrote her doctoral thesis on the subject at Duke University in 2014. Prado and Means plan to interview additional judges, and they are preparing a questionnaire that will be distributed to black judges in state courts throughout the country.

Prado, a political science major from Fresno, CA, learned about Means’ research when she took her course on the court system last spring, but she’s been interested in the law and the role of judges since childhood “The justice system is an integral part of western democracy, and it’s judges who drive the system,” Prado says.

Prado, whose own heritage is part Jewish and part Mexican, says she’s convinced the American judicial system benefits from diversity. “I cried when I heard Judge Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court,” she says.

Means says Prado has played a key role in shaping the survey. “Figuring out which questions to pose in our questionnaire and in the interviews was absolutely an iterative process,” she says. “Kaitlin and I met multiple times and exchanged various versions of the questions.” The final wording of the questions will be reviewed and approved by a team of experts in survey methodology to ensure that the study adheres to current academic standards.

Means says colleagues and others who have learned about her project have asked her if she worries that publishing the results of the study might create a backlash against black judges. “I’m sometimes asked if I fear the study will show black judges are biased and somehow soft on crime and that this study can be used against them,” she says.

“I have two answers to that question,” Means says. “One is that we are scholars doing research and we will let the data speak for itself. And based on what I’ve learned up to now, it’s not as if black judges are saying to black defendants, ‘You’re black and I’m black, so I’m letting you go.’ They are not, for the most part, more lenient, but they are more respectful and more aware of the backgrounds of many defendants. And they tend to hire more brown and black law clerks, so they’re contributing to the diversity of the system.”

Prado says she’s thoroughly enjoying her role in an in-depth project aimed at advancing the public’s understanding of the judicial system. She’ll continue to work with Means on the project during the next school year. “The experience so far has completely exceeded my expectations,” she says. “Being mentored by Taneisha has been invigorating, and I feel more like a collaborator than a student. My contributions are valued; I’m in this project with her.”

Means says she truly values Prado’s contributions. “I’m in awe of Kaitlin,” she says. “She’s always thinking of nuances of this issue, many of which I had not thought of before. Our project is very interdisciplinary – it involves sociology, psychology, economics, history – and Kaitlin brings many parts of that mosaic to this study.”