updated 5/20/2009 5:33:12 PM ET 2009-05-20T21:33:12

If President Barack Obama wants to make the Supreme Court more diverse, he has a wider range of options than any of his predecessors. When Ronald Reagan was president, only about 40 women served on the federal bench, the most common source of Supreme Court nominees.

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

Today, more than 200 women hold federal judgeships, along with 88 African-Americans, 60 Hispanics and eight Asian-Americans.

All but four of the 110 Supreme Court justices in the nation's history have been white men. Two are African-American men, Clarence Thomas and the late Thurgood Marshall, and two are white women, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor.

There has never been a Hispanic, Asian-American or Native American justice.

Ginsburg is the only female justice at the moment and most of the candidates whom Obama is considering are women.

Wide range of experienced lawyers
The president also has a much wider range of experienced lawyers to draw from than Reagan did when he reached down to a midlevel appeals court in Arizona to nominate O'Connor.

"The pool was simply not as broad or as deep as it is now," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.

Before Jimmy Carter came to the White House in 1977, presidents beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt had put just eight women on the federal bench. Carter added 40 female federal judges in four years, including Ginsburg.

Today, 212 full-time federal judges are women, more than a quarter of the federal judiciary.

State supreme court judges — many of them elected — have an even higher share of women. Nearly a third of the judges on those courts are women. On 22 out of 53 courts, women make up at least 40 percent of the judges. (The list includes Washington, D.C., as well as two high courts each for Oklahoma and Texas.)

The rise in the number of women as judges reflects steady growth in the number of female lawyers. About a third of lawyers, as well as roughly half of law school graduates, are women.

"I wouldn't say the doors have swung open as fully as we would like," Greenberger said. "Nonetheless, there are superb women in the judiciary, academia and private practice."

The numbers are smaller for minorities. Of the 793 full-time federal trial and appeals court judges, 88 are African-American, 60 are Hispanic and eight are Asian-American. There are no Native American judges.

Carter brought greater diversity
Again, Carter brought much greater diversity to federal courts than any of his predecessors. In the 16 years beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy, presidents filled 21 judgeships with African-Americans. The total double counts Marshall, who was made an appeals court judge by Kennedy and then put on the Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson.

Carter nominated 37 African-American judges in his single term. He named 16 Hispanics, more than twice as many as previous presidents combined.

George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him significantly raised the number of women and minorities in the judiciary. Nearly 30 percent of judges nominated by Clinton and more than 20 percent of Bush's picks were women.

African-Americans made up 16 percent and Hispanics accounted for 7 percent of Clinton-nominated judges. The numbers were 8 percent and 10 percent, respectively, for Bush.

Sometimes, though, a president's desire to increase diversity gives way to other political concerns. In 2005, Bush nominated a woman, Harriet Miers, to take O'Connor's spot. But Miers withdrew from consideration under criticism from the president's conservative allies.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments