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Lauren Stiller Rikleen

High court pick should be a woman

By Lauren Stiller Rikleen
May 6, 2009
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THE RESIGNATION of Supreme Court Justice David Souter is a galvanizing moment for women in the legal profession. Although women comprise approximately one-third of the legal profession, and women and men have been graduating from law school in nearly equal numbers for two decades, only one member of the US Supreme Court is female.

Some of the speculation on possible replacements for Souter has focused on critical questions regarding a potential nominee's judicial philosophy and life experiences. Will the president appoint a sitting judge, or will he seek out someone from academia or an elected official? Will he find someone who can consistently stand up to the hard-right wing of the Court? Will he focus on a young candidate, to ensure that his appointee can leave a lasting imprint? These are all important factors that the president must consider.

It is, however, when pundits turn to the demographic possibilities of the potential nominee that the alarm bells should sound for women lawyers. That's because, for most of us, it is inconceivable that there could even be a question about whether a woman "should" be appointed. Rather, we wonder, by what possible analysis could a woman not be appointed as only the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court since it first assembled in 1790?

But even with our significant numbers in the legal profession, some commentators insist on classifying women as a "special interest" that the president will need to consider. How did one-half of the population and a third of the profession come to be viewed as a special interest?

Some analysts imply that there is only one "woman's seat" on the Court and that the president is not under the same pressure to select a woman as he would be if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg retired. Wrong. Women will no longer accept the notion that one "woman's seat" - on the Supreme Court or anywhere else - is acceptable as our allotted share. It is not warranted under any analysis, not by our numbers in society, our numbers in the legal profession, nor by our contributions.

Coincidently, on the day that Souter's resignation was announced, a group of women lawyers gathered for a Women's Power Summit on Law and Leadership in Austin, convened by the University of Texas School of Law's Center for Women in Law. The purpose of the Summit was to develop a blueprint for women lawyers to achieve long-overdue parity in the profession. But the assembly seized the coincidental timing of Souter's resignation to pass a resolution calling for the president to appoint a woman to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.

Throughout our nation's history, events have continually demonstrated that the rule of law is the foundation of a free society. Those who are responsible for the fair administration of justice should reflect the rich diversity of our nation. The depth and breadth of the talent pool of women lawyers in our country provides the president with a richness of talent from which to select the next Supreme Court justice.

This gathering of women lawyers in Austin marked the first time female leaders in the profession met to develop a specific action plan to eliminate the barriers that have thwarted the advancement of women in law. Their determination to change the face of leadership in the profession will be felt across the nation. Let's begin by changing the face of the nation's highest court.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women's Success and a partner at Bowditch & Dewey, is the author of "Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the Law."

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