The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg (Capital-Star file)
By Kadida Kenner
Pennsylvania is on the brink of making history. A secretary of state triggered statewide recount in a four-way, two-seat election could see our powerful Commonwealth Court seat its first judge of color in more than a decade. Judge Lori Dumas, who currently serves on the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, is in the running for the open court seat and would provide some much needed diversity for our judiciary.
Pennsylvanians, and especially voters of color expect their judges to represent them, their lived experiences, and their communities. But that can’t happen if our judiciary is monolithic. That’s why diversity is so important. Diversity on the bench presents a better opportunity for people of various backgrounds to feel better represented and more trustful of the judicial system.
If elected, Dumas, a Black woman, would be only the second person of color out of 31 judges currently sitting on Pennsylvania’s three appellate courts –the Superior Court’s Carolyn Nichols is the only one at this time. Diversity on the bench offered by judges like Dumas not only leads to better decision-making and fairer rulings, it builds confidence in the judiciary and provides role models for people of color as well as an example for judges on other, less diverse courts.
Dumas’ election would be a modest improvement on the glaring lack of diversity on Pennsylvania’s highest courts. The sad truth is that judges of color like Dumas remain the exception in our Commonwealth’s appellate courts, particularly when considering the state Supreme Court.
In Pennsylvania’s more than 300-year history, there have only been three people of color to ever sit on Pennsylvania’s highest court. Justice Robert N.C. Nix, Jr. is the only elected Supreme Court justice of color in Pennsylvania history, serving on the bench from 1972 to 1996.
Justices Juanita Kidd Stout and Cynthia Baldwin, on the other hand, were both appointed for interim terms between elections. Not a single justices of color has won an election for a seat on the state’s highest court in 25 years — that’s despite Pennsylvania being nearly 25 percent non-white.
Most other states aren’t faring any better. At last count, there were 22 states with an all-white state Supreme Court, including 11 states where people of color make up 20 percent or more of the population.
Look a little deeper and you realize that such disproportionate representation is the rule in our highest courts, not the exception. People of color are almost 40 percent of the U.S. population, but constitute less than 17 percent state Supreme Court seats.
Pennsylvanians can recognize the importance of more diversity on the courts, but they might not be able to tell you why our judiciary isn’t as diverse as it should be. Indeed, the move for greater diversity on our courts has hit a serious roadblock thanks to wealthy, out-of-state interest groups pumping money into our judicial elections in favor of their chosen candidate. While diversity on state courts has stalled in recent years, spending on court races continues to skyrocket.
In Pennsylvania, Supreme Court elections have gone from being low-dollar, sleepy affairs to six-and-seven-figure contests between partisan interests. This year’s elections were no exception. Last-minute splurging from organizations serving as conduits for dark money groups like the Federalist Society bankrolled attack ads in the days leading up to the Nov. 2 election. These are the same dark money groups that created the list from which the Trump administration handpicked it’s more than 200, lifetime, overwhelmingly white, federal judge appointees.
This kind of political spending in judicial elections is corrosive to both diversity on the courts and judicial fairness. After all, you wouldn’t trust a referee who took money from a head coach right before kickoff, no matter what the final score. Well, the same goes for our judges.
The more money flows into our judicial races, the harder it is for the public to trust that their judges are prioritizing our state constitution over campaign donors.
Candidates like Judge Dumas offer hope for a more diverse and fair judiciary in Pennsylvania. But if Pennsylvanians are serious about fairer representation from their courts, our leaders must work to keep dark money spending out of our judicial elections. It’s that simple.
If not, outside money will continue to entrench the unrepresentative nature of our judiciary and corrupt our judicial elections. Pennsylvanians should be the ones to choose their judges, not out-of-state high rollers.
Opinion contributor Kadida Kenner is the executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, a statewide voting rights organization with a primary purpose of voter registration, and the co-chair of Why Courts Matter – Pennsylvania, an advocacy campaign seeking to protect the independence of our courts and educate the electorate about their importance. Her work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. She writes from Chester County.
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