Education & Workforce Development

Is justice blind?: Few women in Indiana are appointed to high judiciary posts

October 8, 2007

It is still unusual to have women presiding over a court of law-so much so that when three women judges heard cases together on Sept. 28 in the 5th District Court of Appeals in Richland County, Ohio, it made history and national news.

Should it come as a surprise that the symbol for justice is a woman?

"Well that is a symbol, but the reality is that it is still a male-dominated profession," said Maria Pabón López, an associate professor of law at the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis. "What we have is a 15-50-15-that means for the past 15 years, 50 percent of the students in law school are women, but only 15 percent of partners in law firms are women. Now how can that be?"

Many factors contribute to women being under-represented in leadership roles in the legal community, said Lopez, who earned her undergraduate degree from Princeton University and her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She's observed these factors for many years, first as a practicing attorney for 10 years and now in the classroom.

One factor is the assumption that a woman cannot have a family and be on a partner track at a law firm, where lawyers can regularly work up to 70 or 80 hours a week.

"It's said the law is a jealous mistress, but I tell people you can be a mother and a lawyer," she said. "I have a 7-year-old and an 11-year old, but I've developed a deep bench of people to help me, and my husband is a law professor, too. You don't have to be superwoman to do it all. That's what I like to tell my students."

Lopez helped develop two classes: "Race in Law" and "Women in Law." When she taught "Women in Law" last spring, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg heard about it and contacted Lopez.

"She came out and spoke with the class ... of about 20-all women except for one man," Lopez said. She plans to teach the "Race in Law" class next spring.

Lopez said she still sees blatant gender bias. "I recently had a male and female student intern at large law firms over a summer. When they returned I found that the male student had done research most of the time and the female student brought coffee and did typing most of the time. Things like that devalue their experiences."

State's highest court devoid of

women

Indiana is the only state in the country that has not had a Caucasian woman serve on its Supreme Court, and Indiana and Idaho are the only states that do not currently have any women on their highest court.

Myra C. Selby, now a partner with Indianapolisbased law firm Ice Miller LLP, is the only woman to have served as a justice on the Indiana Supreme Court. She was named in 1995 to serve on the court by Gov. Evan Bayh, causing the justices' chambers to be remodeled to accommodate a women's restroom for the first time in its 191-year history. She left the court in 1999 but remains involved by chairing the Indiana Supreme Court Commission on Race and Gender Fairness.

"When I was on the court I can remember when third- and fourth-grade students would come to tour the chambers and the girls would ask 'Where are the girls?'" Selby said. "Everywhere they looked they would see photo after photo of men. I looked at it as an opportunity to ask them what they wanted in life and to encourage them to see themselves in leadership roles when they grow up."

Even as a young girl, Selby saw herself as a professional. She earned a bachelor's degree from Kalamazoo College in Michigan and a law degree from the University of Michigan. She practiced law in Washington, D.C., before moving to Indiana.

Leaving the Indiana Supreme Court was a difficult decision.

"It's hard to articulate why I left the best job in the world, but it was a time in my life and my family's life where I had to think about how I wanted to spend my time and how I can bring security to my family," said Selby, a mother of two who lives in Indianapolis. "I am proud of having been on the Indiana Supreme Court and proud of every case we heard. This court is comprised of the highest-quality individuals who listen to the people and understand the law."

While her law career is diverse, it does have one constant: an interest in fairness in race and gender issues.

"I got involved in matters of race and gender issues early in my studies," Selby said. "I really wanted to serve on a commission about this issue in Indiana, especially after I heard that 47 other states already had such a commission." She was pleased when her colleagues on the court agreed that Indiana needed to form a similar commission in 2002.

The commission made several recommendations for the high court, including:

Striving to recruit women to attend and teach at the four Indiana law schools -at IU in Indianapolis and Bloomington, the University of Notre Dame and Valparaiso University.

Continuing studies to explain and address the statistical disparities in the number of minority lawyers and underrepresentation of women at the partnership level.

Partnering with the judiciary, law schools, bar associations, law enforcement, corrections and other entities to coordinate efforts for "gender, race and ethnic fairness in Indiana's judicial system."

Requiring that at least one hour of every course in legal education be devoted to promoting "awareness, understanding and sensitivity to issues of racial, gender and ethnic fairness."

"The court's response was not published, but I can tell you they accepted all recommendations," Selby said, "but there's still a lot of work to be done."

A sometimes subtle bias

Patricia A. Riley is one of four women who serve as a judge on the Indiana Court of Appeals and is an adjunct professor at IU's law school here. She earned her law degree here after getting her undergraduate degree in Bloomington. She worked at different times as a prosecuting attorney and public defender in Marion County.

"I always wanted to be a lawyer, and I became one in 1974," Riley said. She was the only female in her class back then. While times have changed, "unfortunately being a woman is still an issue-I haven't seen it as a plus yet!" she said. "Until we place women in ... leadership roles it will be an issue."

Riley said it is difficult to quantify the subtle bias that women face.

"We can look at the data, though," she said. "Women still don't get pay equal to men, more men than women are put on the 'partner track' in law firms, more men are made partners and there aren't enough women serving as judges." She hopes these issues will steer her own sons as they begin their legal careers.

"My oldest son, Brendan, is a bailiff for Judge Thomas Carroll in Marion County and my youngest son, Colin, is in his third year at the University of Miami School of Law," Riley said. "Certainly having a family is an important factor to consider. I would encourage young people entering the profession to consider how you are going to handle a family and your career."

Heather Perkins, an attorney with Collier Homann and Siamas LLC in Crawfordsville, who recently received the Indiana State Bar Association's "Outstanding Young Attorney in Indiana" award, said she doesn't detect much bias in Crawfordsville.

"I don't ... see the gender bias as much in a small town as you might in Indianapolis or other larger cities," Perkins said. "The clients I serve and attorneys I face in the courtroom are the same people I see at church and at a restaurant."

Once she did work with an attorney from another town who said to her "Well, honey, here's what I need you to do," and that surprised her, but she hasn't experienced that in Crawfordsville, where one of the three judges in Montgomery County is a woman, she said.

Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council and an adjunct professor at the law school here, teaches gender awareness in the classroom.

"Does gender bias and racism still exist? Yes, and it doesn't stop at the door of a courtroom," Landis said. "But it's important for all attorneys to be perceptive in the courtroom and to present themselves in the best way they can to serve their client."

Landis said he has witnessed many changes in his 34 years in the legal profession. "In the 1950s women lawyers couldn't even get jobs," he said. "They had to become legal secretaries."

When he started in the profession there were very few women who became trial lawyers and, although he sees 50 percent female enrollment in law schools now, "it will take time for those students to acquire the experience to move into partnerships or become judges," he said.

"I'm guessing in the next 10 years we will see a sharp increase in women serving in those roles."
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