How Donald Trump hurt female representation in federal courts

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supreme court trump
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump wave a flag at the Supreme Court as the court reviews a lawsuit filed by Texas seeking to undo President-elect Joe Biden's election victory in Washington, U.S., December 11, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
  • The federal judiciary has always been overrepresented by male judges compared to the US population.

  • But Donald Trump's appointments of more than 230 judges left the courts even less female.

  • Experts say gender parity is vital to the courts' understanding of gender justice issues.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

After four years in office, President Donald Trump left America's judiciary - an institution already steeped in gender homogeneity - significantly more male.

During his one-term presidency, Trump appointed more than 230 lifetime-appointed judges to the federal court system, installing approximately 28% of the current federal judiciary and cementing his legacy on the American court system for decades to come.

Insider compiled a database of every Article III judge in the federal judiciary, which includes Supreme Court justices, federal circuit and district judges, and justices on the US Court of International Trade. Once appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, Article III judges are granted a position for life.

Read more: Trump appointed 28% of all the federal judges in the US, and they could mold American life for decades to come

Trump doled out lifetime appointments to more than three times as many male judges as female judges - 174 men and only 55 women. For comparison, of the 315 justices appointed by former President Barack Obama, who remain on the bench, 183 are men and 132 are women.

The federal judiciary is still far from achieving gender parity

A little more than half of the US population is female, but of the approximately 800 Article III judges currently on the bench, 67% are men and 33% are women. The percentage of female Trump appointees is even smaller - only 24% of his picks are women.

Gender of active judges, by president who appointed them 2021
Taylor Tyson/Insider

Equal representation at the highest levels of the law gives legitimacy to the courts and enhances the fairness of the adjudication process, experts told Insider.

"When a court is reflective of ... the people they are aiming to protect, then individuals who appear in front of the court may be more confident that the court understands the real-world implications of their rulings and therefore will have better outcomes," said Theresa Lau, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center.

Judges bring their unique experiences to the bench, which Judge Karen Donohue, president of the National Association of Women Judges, said often leads to more comprehensive and empathetic perspectives from female judges.

"Laws and rulings can be based on gender and racial stereotypes that may have different impacts on men and women," Donohue said.

Having women on the bench is also a crucial step in ensuring the courts understand the implications of gender justice issues in the judicial pipeline, Lau said.

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Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch (left) and Brett Kavanaugh (right) greet President Trump at his 2020 State of the Union address. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Women are not a monolith - neither are female judges

While more women in positions of judicial power is a positive aim, progressive activists are less concerned with the gender of a judge and more focused on how that judge wields their power.

"The critical question is whether or not a judge understands that central to the pursuit of freedom and justice are laws that support equity and enable women and all people to thrive," Amanda Thayer, spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice, told Insider.

Two of Trump's female appointees, in fact, have some of the harshest anti-abortion rights records of the batch.

Wendy Vitter - a Louisiana judge who once said Planned Parenthood kills "over 150,000 females a year" and Sarah Pitlyk - a pro-life Missourian who was deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association - were both confirmed to lifetime appointments in 2019.

Then there was Trump's quickly nominated, swiftly confirmed appointment of Amy Coney Barrett - the fifth woman ever to sit on the US Supreme Court. Days before the 2020 presidential election, Trump replaced progressive stalwart Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Barrett, a female judge with her own storied history of hostility toward reproductive rights.

Despite polling that suggests 77% of Americans support Roe v. Wade, there has been an uptick in anti-abortion bills at the state level in recent years and Thayer said activists are watching closely for the possibility of a direct challenge to the landmark case.

Trump's impact on the courts will be felt for years

The former president's nominees were overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white, and young on average - a purposeful move on Trump's part to guarantee his impact on the judiciary for decades, Donohue said.

"Trump definitely exacerbated the problem and the lack of diversity in the courts, but the judiciary has never been representative of the demographic diversity of this country," Lau said.

She's hoping that will soon start to change.

President Joe Biden already has 72 Article III vacancies to fill, nominations Lau said she hopes will go to justices who represent diverse racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, family status, disability, professional, and religious identities.

Yet the sexist double standards that female attorneys and judges regularly endure have already begun to materialize in the early confirmation process for Vanita Gupta, Biden's progressive civil rights nominee for associate attorney general.

"You're talking about attack ads and opposition that ... say 'oh, because someone is a woman of color they are automatically biased,'" Lau said. "Which is maddening ... it's just assumed that the white male cisgender perspective is the unbiased one."

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