How Will New-Found Diversity Affect Court Decisions?

By Owusu, Tony | The World and I, May 2011 | Go to article overview

How Will New-Found Diversity Affect Court Decisions?


Owusu, Tony, The World and I


Last month's Wal-Mart v. Dukes case provided a unique opportunity for followers of the Supreme Court to judge the impact of having the most diverse group of justices in the court's history. The decision, in a case that dealt with concerns raised by issues of diversity, is expected in mid-summer.

Since it's inception, on February 2, 1790, the Supreme Court of the United States has not had a particularly varied track record when it comes to diversity. Unlike some other positions in the US government, you don't have to be a natural born citizen to serve as a justice. But, in fact, the court has had a total of only five justices who were not born in the United States. The court has seated only two African Americans, current justice Clarence Thomas and the man he replaced in 1991 Justice Thurgood Marshall, and only four women.

The current make up of the court, which includes three women and one African American male, makes this bench the most diverse group ever. The question is will this new found diversity affect the way the court reaches its decisions, and if so, how?

Readers will recall last months Wal-Mart v. Dukes case involved current and former female Wal-Mart employees who claimed that Wal-Mart discriminated against them because of their gender. The plaintiffs brought forth evidence that suggested women, while making up two-thirds of Wal-Mart's hour wage earners, they only made up 14% of it's managerial staff.

While the court will not be deciding whether the plaintiffs' civil rights have been violated by their employer, the court will be deciding whether to allow the case to move forward with its estimated potential class of 1.6 million women. The question on many peoples minds is how the current, more diverse make up of the court will affect cases like Wal-Mart v. Dukes where there are claims of discrimination based on sex. If we as a society deem diversity in our ruling bodies to be an important ingredient of a well rounded court, then it is also fair to consider how a court that for the first time in history is one-third female, will judge issues that deal with sexual discrimination and civil rights.

Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman to serve the court. Nominated in 1981, Justice O'Connor was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and served the court for 24 years before retiring in 2005. The other three female justices, all of whom currently serve, are Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993), Sonia Sotomayor (2009), and Elena Kagan (2010).

Justice O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg served the court in tandem from 1993, when Ginsburg was appointed to the court, until 2005, when O'Connor retired. In the time between when O'Connor retired and Ginsburg was joined on the bench by another female justice, Ginsburg lamented on the lack of female representation on the court and what it could mean for the decisions that came out of it multiple times. …

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