By Edwin Garcia
The San Jose Mercury News
When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger first expressed a desire to appoint more judges of racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, some leaders of minority bar associations were skeptical.
They expected him to appoint relatively few, the practice of previous Republican governors.
But the skeptics have been proved wrong, as growing numbers of experienced lawyers who belong to minority groups are applying for judgeships – and being appointed to the bench – as part of Schwarzenegger’s effort to diversify courtrooms throughout the state.
About 22 percent of Schwarzenegger’s judicial appointees to date identify themselves as Asian-American, Latino or African-American, up from a cumulative total of about 16 percent just 18 months ago.
Schwarzenegger’s share of minority judicial appointments since taking office in late 2003 has surpassed that of Govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, who served a full eight years each.
According to state records, 31 percent of judicial applicants in 2007 belonged to a minority group, up from 29 percent from 2006.
“Creating a more diverse bench starts with having more diverse applicants, and as the numbers show, we are getting there,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement last month. “I thank Sharon Majors-Lewis, my judicial appointments secretary, for all her hard work and successful outreach efforts over the last year to bring the best, brightest and most qualified individuals to our courts.”
Majors-Lewis, who as a prosecutor was at times the only non-white legal professional in the courtroom, said diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity – she also scouts exceptional candidates who are white and come from non-traditional socioeconomic backgrounds as well as applicants who are gay or disabled.
“I would love to see something of everyone on the bench,” she said.
Judges from diverse backgrounds, Majors-Lewis said, bring life experience that often proves beneficial when handling court cases. And the litigants benefit, too, she said, because if the judge happens to be of their same race or ethnicity, they will feel more comfortable with the procedures, no matter the outcome.