Oklahoma once again finds itself on the wrong end of a national ranking, this one regarding the number of minorities and women who serve as judges in the state court system.
A study by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy found Oklahoma ranked 46th out of 51 states and Washington D.C. in terms of proportionate representation of racial minorities and women serving on state supreme courts, intermediate appellate courts and state general jurisdiction trial courts – known in the Sooner state as county district courts.
The study calls the disparity “the Gavel Gap.”
Oklahoma was among 32 states that received a failing grade for racial and ethnic representativeness on state courts and 27 that failed for gender representation. Only South Carolina, North Dakota, West Virginia, Alaska and Utah ranked worse than Oklahoma. Hawaii ranked No. 1, followed by Washington D.C. and Oregon.
“When you don’t see individuals that look like you sitting on a bench, you feel that the system is already stacked against you,” said David Phillips, a Tulsa defense attorney with 26 years of experience practicing law in Oklahoma.
Phillips, who is African American, has spent more than half his career at the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office.
Moniqua Reed, a 23-year-old who identifies herself as black, has been a defendant in the Tulsa County District Court system. She told The Frontier she doesn’t believe white judges give the same consideration to minority defendants as minority judges do.
“There’s not enough” black judges in Tulsa County, she said. “There needs to be more.”
The study’s researchers gathered biographical information on every sitting judge as of December 2014. They used secondary sources including state government web pages, press releases and printed directories; professional association, practitioner, and university publications; academic journals; newspapers; judges’ official campaign websites; judicial directories; and confidential telephone interviews with judges and lawyers.
Of the 92 judges studied in Oklahoma, 92 percent were determined to be non-Hispanic whites, and 79 percent were men, according to the study.
Only 1 percent of judges were women of color and 7 percent were men of color. However, according to the 2014 American Community Survey, which the study used to determine each state’s demographics, men and women of color comprise 17 percent and 16 percent of Oklahoma’s population, respectively.
Nationally, one in five judges is a racial minority compared to more than four out of five criminal defendants, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates.
Tulsa County District Court does not keep records of the race or ethnicity of its 33 judges, said Trial Court Administrator Vicki Cox.
The American Bar Association maintains a directory of minority judges in the United States. The latest edition, released in 2008, lists seven African American judges on state courts in Oklahoma.
Two of the three Tulsa County District Court judges listed are no longer serving: Carlos Chappelle, who died last year, and Jesse Harris, who retired in 2014.
Sharon Holmes, a former public defender who took office as a district court judge in 2015, was the first black woman elected to the post in Tulsa County and filled Harris’ vacated seat. Phillips ran against her in that campaign.
Special Judge Wilma Palmer remains a juvenile court judge. Oklahoma County had two African American judges at the time. Neither of them remain on the bench.
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Tom Colbert and Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals Judge David Lewis have retained their appointments.
The directory shows no Hispanic judges or Asian Pacific Islander American judges and only one Native American district court judge, Douglas Combs, who has since been promoted to the state Supreme Court.
“We have a few black judges and we have essentially no other minorities that are represented, Hispanic or otherwise, and we should have,” Phillips said of the Tulsa County District Court.
He contends the root of the problem lies in how judges are chosen. The election process for district judges — Tulsa has 15 — creates additional hurdles for minority candidates, whose race and ability to secure financial backing puts them at a disadvantage to their white opponents.
Such issues can dissuade a potential minority candidate from running at all, Phillips said.
He expects the problem to persist until the district has a more diverse electorate.
The other 18 judges serving the Tulsa County District Court are collectively appointed by the elected judges and are known as special judges. They must apply for the position. Since the number of black attorneys locally is limited, fewer apply or are chosen to be special judges, Phillips said.
The special judgeships have brought more women to the bench, though, he said.
Of Tulsa’s 15 elected district court judges, eight are women. Ten women serve as special judges, giving them slightly more than half of the combined total.
Oklahoma ranked No. 41 for gender representativeness. Oregon and Nevada ranked highest.
Women have been attending law school in numbers equal to men for more than two decades; however, that gender balance has not found its way to state court benches, the report’s co-authors, Tracey George of Vanderbilt University and Albert Yoon of the University of Toronto, found.
No states came within 90 percent of an equivalent number of women on the bench as in their population.
Oklahoma ranked lower, at 46, for estimated race and ethnicity representativeness. Montana and South Dakota took the top spots for the category.
Phillips says that despite the racial disparity, he’s seen no indication of prejudice by any judge during his years in Tulsa County District Court.
His work has taken him to many other district courts in the state.
“There have been times that I’ve had pause” about the way things were handled in other counties, he said.
District Judge William LaFortune, Tulsa County’s criminal division chief, acknowledged the importance of a proportional representation of minorities on the bench while also emphasizing that in his experience Tulsa’s state judges are “all very fair and impartial regardless.”
Those are two qualities that are “critical for any judge’s service,” he said.
Nationwide, about 70 percent of state court judges are male and 80 percent of state court judges are white.