Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Carl Tobias

Diversifying California's Federal District Courts


Thursday, September 3, 2009

President Barack Obama has vowed to increase diversity throughout the federal government, and Obama's Cabinet appointments demonstrate that the chief executive is honoring his commitment. The federal judiciary constitutes another essential area that has a critical need for greater diversity, in particular vis-à-vis ethnicity and gender, and there too, Obama is making good on his promise.

Consistent with his pledge, President Obama nominated three outstanding Asian-Americans to the federal bench. On July 31, Obama nominated Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Nguyen to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Then, one week later, Obama nominated practicing attorney Dolly Gee to the same court, and nominated United States Magistrate Judge Edward Chen to the Northern District of California.

The President deserves substantial credit for nominating such highly qualified, diverse candidates to the California federal bench, and the Senate should expeditiously confirm each of the three.

Three Impressive Nominees Who Deserve Confirmation

These three nominees each possess the intelligence, character, diligence, independence and judicial temperament to be excellent jurists.

Judge Nguyen has been a California Superior Court member since 2002. For seven years prior to that, she was an Assistant United States Attorney in the Central District of California, where she rose to serve as Deputy Chief of the General Crimes Division. The ABA rated her well qualified, its highest ranking.

Ms. Gee is a managing partner at the Los Angeles firm of Schwartz, Stensapir, Dohrmann & Sommers. President Bill Clinton appointed her to a five-year term on the Federal Service Impasses Panel, and she clerked for Eastern District of California Judge Milton Schwartz.

The Northern District of California Judges appointed Magistrate Judge Chen in 2001, and recently reappointed the jurist to a second eight-year term – surely a strong vote of confidence in his work. The ABA rated Chen well qualified. Chen clerked for Ninth Circuit Judge James Browning and Northern District of California Judge Charles Renfrew, and he served as an ACLU attorney from 1985 until his Magistrate Judge appointment.

The Current Lack of Diversity on the Federal Bench: A Problem Obama Is Right to Take On

Minorities and women remain underrepresented on the federal bench, compared with their representation among the national population. Whites still comprise a full 84 percent of the federal judiciary. Women constitute only one in five federal judges. African Americans make up only eight percent of the bench. And only 11 Asian Americans are among the nearly 1300 sitting federal judges – fewer than one percent.

The situation in California stands out as especially glaring in some respects. No female judge has ever received appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. And despite the many talented Asian-American lawyers who practice in the Golden State, Asian-American judges remain scarce. Indeed, Judge Chen will be the first Asian-American Judge ever to join the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The Advantages of Appointing Diverse Judges

Enhancing ethnic and gender diversity on the bench will provide multiple advantages. Minority and female jurists, by lending their unique perspectives, will help their colleagues appreciate and properly resolve complex questions relating to issues such as discrimination and abortion, which the judiciary often addresses, while limiting the presence of bias in the federal justice system. Moreover, the public will have greater confidence in a federal bench the composition of which resembles America's composition.

President Obama has implemented efforts that will improve ethnic and gender diversity, as reflected in his judicial nominations thus far. Of course, recently-confirmed Justice Sonia Sotomayor is the quintessential illustration – and her confirmation hearings addressed at length the benefits of having diverse judges, including Supreme Court Justices.

However, the Chief Executive's search for diversity goes far beyond Justice Sotomayor: Obama's seven appellate court nominees include two African Americans and two women, while his nine district court nominees include three African Americans, three Asian Americans, one Latino and four women.

To his credit, President Obama has assiduously searched for, considered, and nominated numerous minority and female attorneys. Senators—on their own initiative, or at the administration's instigation—have concomitantly recommended substantial numbers of diverse candidates. For example, the President nominated Judges Nguyen and Chen at the suggestion of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.), while he nominated Ms. Gee after Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) proposed the attorney. The two senators correspondingly recommended the candidates, once their respective judicial advisory committees had thoroughly analyzed and interviewed prospects and had suggested Nguyen, Chen, and Gee.

If they are confirmed, as they surely should be, Judges Nguyen and Chen and attorney Gee, will prove to be assets to the bench, and will significantly enhance diversity on the California federal district courts. The Senate must promptly confirm these nominees, who will be both deserving and historic appointments.

Carl Tobias is the Williams Professor at the University of Richmond.

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard