It’s one of those numbers that makes you cringe. Of the 61 judges who’ve served on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, just one has been a woman: Judge Diana Murphy, nominated by President Clinton in 1994. Murphy, who is 74 years old, is one of 11 sitting judges and six judges with senior status on the Court, which covers all or parts of Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
“The last nine appointments were [all] men,” pointed out Professor Sally Kenney, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs’ Center on Women and Public Policy. “We are just one retirement away from an all-male court.” (Currently, Judge Murphy has no plans to retire.)
Kenney and three other women lawyers and academics are spearheading a group of about 100 activists, educators and lawyers who are determined that’s not going to happen. The other founders of the group that calls itself the Infinity Project (after the numeral “8” turned on its side) are Lisa Brabbit of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Marie Failinger of Hamline University School of Law, both of whom are associate deans, and Mary Vasaly, a partner in the law firm of Maslon, Edelman, Borman & Brand.
This is no group of talking heads-these are strong-minded, smart women, used to making things happen. And their achievements in the past year leave no doubt that they’re both serious and effective. The leaders of Infinity organized an October 2008 planning conference that drew nearly 150 participants from the seven states of the Eighth Circuit. They’ve garnered a $43,000 grant from the Open Society Institute to support their efforts. According to Kenney, the strategies the group is using to achieve its goals include public awareness and education; connecting with political leaders, in particular U.S. senators from the states served by the Eighth Circuit Court; and serving as a clearinghouse for women interested in serving on the Court.
Infinity’s organizing is backed by the kind of research and critical inquiry you’d expect from scholars. They ask questions like: Is there a glass ceiling for high judicial office? Infinity points out that all nine of the current members of the Supreme Court served as circuit court judges. If women are excluded from this level of service, the group says, their chances of serving on the Supreme Court are greatly reduced.
“We’re moving backward [in the Bush administration] in the percentage of women judges appointed,” Kenney said. President Carter ap-pointed 40 women or 16 percent of his judges. Less than 8 percent of President Reagan’s appointments to the federal bench were women. President George Bush appointed 20 percent women, mostly by elevating Reagan appointees to higher courts. President Clinton appointed 30 percent women. George W. Bush has appointed 21 percent women (some pending confirmation).
“In the 1970s, women came together to put pressure on the Carter administration. As a result, President Carter appointed more women to the federal bench than all previous presidents combined,” Kenney said. “It’s time to organize again. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, ‘these things do not come of themselves.’
“We are not going to see women appointed proportionate to their numbers unless we apply pressure.”
Contact the Infinity Project at www.infinityproject.org.