Thursday, October 06, 2005

Chicks on the bench

Bart Simpson once said, when he was hauled before a juvenile court over which a female was presiding, that he was glad to see more "chicks on the bench." As long as they're smart and apply the law, I'm also glad to see women serving as judges (as well as freemasons, wiccans, vegans, and even fans of Michael Bolton). Something that occurred to me last week, when Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz of the Minnesota Supreme Court resigned, is that in contrast with the U.S. Supreme Court, nobody much cares whether appointees to the Minnesota Supreme Court are male or female.

Now, the situations aren't exactly identical - the U.S. Supreme Court has much more power, especially since we seem to have decided that the federal judiciary is empowered to decide hot-button issues that are arguably better left to the political process. And nobody really cares much about the Minnesota Supreme Court, the most famous member of which is not a woman, and is someone who failed the bar exam on his first try. But I think a couple important factors are relevant here. First, the Minnesota Supreme Court broke the gender bar quite a while ago, and at one point had a four-woman majority among its seven members. Gender simply isn't too much of an issue any more - competence is the main factor, and unless appointments were to suddenly revert back to an only-male pattern, things should stay this way. I think this is something everyone can feel good about.

And second, one reason gender is still such a big deal following Sandra Day O'Connor's resignation is life tenure. Because Supreme Court justices serve so long, and are replaced so infrequently, it has not been possible for the court to reflect the growing prominence of women in the legal profession. Were terms shorter, and justices replaced more frequently, very likely the same dynamic that has made gender a much less important issue on the Minnesota Supreme Court would apply.

This is just one more reason term limits ought to be considered for U.S. Supreme Court justices, apart from the obvious if impolitic one - that it is unrealistic to expect persons in their 80s or above to continue to do some of the most important thinking that is done in our society. It's not nice to say things like this, but it's also not wise to ignore reality.

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