Opinion: Judges with legal protection or civil rights backgrounds are uncommon in federal court docket. We want extra.

Farjood is a lawyer and lives in Mission Valley. @ NadiaFarjood

Prosecutors wear more than their fair share of robes in federal courts. It’s time to level the field. By appointing more public defenders and civil rights attorneys to the Bundesbank, President Joe Biden can begin correcting the professional diversity imbalance in our courts, improving the legitimacy of the judiciary, and helping to raise the public’s perception of our judicial system at this critical point in the Rehabilitating faith in the just administration of justice fades.

After the forcible raid of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurgents on Jan. 6, national attention focused on inequality in law enforcement: who will be held accountable, who will not, and why. People thirst for reform and racial justice. A 2020 poll found that almost all Americans are in favor of at least changing our criminal justice system.

Judges are important actors in ensuring a fair system. For this reason, Biden’s promise to appoint the “most diverse cabinet” in history should also extend to judicial nominations and include professional background in the calculation. Travel needs to be distributed to a wider group of advocates who have represented the most vulnerable and the most vulnerable in society: imprisonment.

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Judges with a criminal or civil law background are few and far between in federal courts. A 2020 study by the Center for American Progress found that only about 1 percent of incumbent judges sitting directly under the Supreme Court had had careers as defense counsel or legal counsel. Trump’s court decisions widened the loophole. As of August 2020, he appointed 74 former prosecutors but only three former defense lawyers.

The safest way to become a federal judge? Prosecute first. A 2019 study by the Cato Institute found that the ratio of former prosecutors to former criminal defense lawyers, including public defenders, is four to one at the Bundesbank. The ratio rises to seven to one when lawyers who have previously stood up for the government in civil and criminal matters are compared with those who have spoken out against it.

Most noticeable is the inequality at the Supreme Court, where eight of the nine judges served in prosecution. In 2016, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, herself a former prosecutor, drew attention to the court’s apparent lack of professional diversity. As she pointed out, “There is no criminal defense attorney in court.” That was the trend. Harvard law professor Andrew Crespo noted that the number of judges who previously served as prosecutors has tripled since the 1970s.

In fact, Thurgood Marshall – founder of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – was the last judge to have significant experience representing defendants in need, retiring in 1991. On the civil rights side, the late Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a prominent women’s rights attorney in 2011, said if she were considered for a seat in court today, “my ACLU association would likely disqualify me.”

The professional background of judges is important because it affects the public perception of the courts and their impartiality, which affects the legitimacy of the judiciary. In addition, the judges’ life experiences can influence their perspectives and thus also their decisions. Take it from a prosecutor who recently wrote that “the lack of professional diversity at the bank has meant that our courts can disproportionately reflect the viewpoints of the most powerful institutions and individuals in our country”.

For too long, lawyers representing ordinary people have been absent from the chambers of power. Defense attorneys and civil rights lawyers have examined the mechanisms of discrimination, seen the pains of poverty, heard stories of false accusations, learned of the unspeakable upbringing that may have influenced subsequent criminal behavior, and knew all too well the consequences of imprisoning vulnerable people in beings a deadly pandemic. In the words of Public Interest Attorney Bryan Stevenson, we need judges who are “close to the people who are suffering.” This includes crime victims, low-income clients and the accused.

Fortunately, this is already on Biden’s radar. His White House attorney, Dana Remus, wrote to Democratic senators in December asking for recommendations from judicial candidates “whose legal experience has been historically under-represented at the Bundesbank,” including public defenders and legal aid lawyers. It is up to us to hold Biden and our senators accountable as we work to build a more reflective judiciary that draws on our country’s rich reservoir of legal aid.

While the road to federal justice has traditionally been paved with law enforcement, the Biden government has a unique opportunity to tread a new path shaped by professionally diverse lawyers.

Farjood is an attorney and former clerk for US District Judge André Birotte Jr. and lives in Mission Valley.

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