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Thanks to Jimmy Carter, America’s courts look more like America

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Former president Jimmy Carter prior to the game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Cincinnati Bengals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 30, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.

I often ask my Georgetown Law students what stands out as the most surprising thing they learned from my class on American presidents and the federal judiciary, and there is one name that invariably leads the discussion — President Jimmy Carter. Despite holding the distinction as the only president since Zachary Taylor to leave office without appointing a Supreme Court justice, Carter did more to reshape the nature and direction of our federal courts than almost any democratic president before or since.   

When President Carter assumed office in January 1977 only eight women and 31 racial minorities  had ever been confirmed as federal judges. And, while the civil rights and women’s rights movements had notched impressive victories in the preceding years, President Carter reportedly encountered stiff resistance from his own party to his vision of diversifying the courts.  

For generations, Democratic senators had used the judicial selection process as a reward for their most influential political patrons, relying on their networks of political donors, campaign supporters and prominent lawyers to recommend judges for important court vacancies.   

The unequal distribution of political and economic power at the time ensured that the overwhelming majority of judicial nominees were white and male, with most hailing from wealthy and powerful backgrounds far removed from the realities most working-class and nonwhite Americans faced.   

Many leading legal luminaries with influence over the judicial selection process were also unenthusiastic about President Carter’s plans to challenge the status quo. This included the American Bar Association, which favored judicial nominees hailing from career paths, private clubs and professional associations that were often closed or otherwise inaccessible to women and minorities, resulting in low ratings for several of President Carter’s historic and highly qualified judicial nominees.   

Undeterred, within his first year in office President Carter signed an executive order establishing selection commissions of diverse groups of lawyers and non-lawyers to recommend nominees for vacancies to powerful U.S. appellate court seats. The commissions, which are still used today, were tasked with providing slates of nominees within 60 days of any vacancy on a U.S. circuit court.   

If there were any doubts about Carter’s seriousness in confirming more women and racial minorities to the federal bench, his administration quickly put these to bed. Slates including only white male nominees were frequently returned to selection committees, and Carter’s White House repeatedly pressured the Justice Department to make diversifying the courts a priority, according to one account, even in the face of tepid support and occasional hostility from then-Attorney General Griffin Bell.   

Not satisfied with diversifying circuit courts, the Carter administration also prioritized increasing diversity among district court nominees, even in the face of stiff opposition from powerful segregationist senators like Senate Judiciary Committee Chair James Eastman (D-Miss.). Nevertheless, the Carter administration successfully pressured many Democratic senators into establishing district court selection commissions, leading to the creation of 31 commissions during President Carter’s time in office.  

The Carter administration would have struggled to successfully take on so many deeply vested interests on its own, and, to its great credit, it embraced support from public interest groups, women’s rights groups and civil rights groups that happily supplied the administration with names of highly qualified lawyers from non-traditional professional and demographic backgrounds.  

In the end, President Carter succeeded in appointing 41 women and 57 racial minorities to the federal judiciary during his four years in office, equivalent to a 500 percent increase in the number of female federal judges and a nearly 200 percent increase in the number of nonwhite federal judges in U.S. history at the time. By contrast, 90 percent of President Reagan’s judicial nominees were white men during his administration’s ensuing eight years in office.  

While President Carter was limited to just one four-year term, the legacy of his judicial nominees has stood the test of time. Two of his nominees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were later appointed to the Supreme Court, and subsequent democratic administrations have significantly expanded the number of women and LGBTQ federal judges, as well as judges from racial, ethnic and religious minority communities. This is particularly true of the Biden administration, which is proving itself a rare equal among democratic administrations when it comes to prioritizing our courts.   

As the nation remembers the legacy of this noble man from such humble beginnings, let’s also pay attention to one of President Carter’s less heralded but incredibly important contributions to our society. That is, popularizing the idea that our courts should look and think more like the people they represent. 

Nan Aron is a distinguished lecturer in residence at Georgetown Law Center and founder and former president of Alliance for Justice.  

Tags bench diversity Jimmy Carter Politics of the United States Presidency of Jimmy Carter Ronald Reagan Ruth Bader Ginsburg Stephen Breyer u.s. district court United States federal courts

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