In April, I knew very little about the judicial system. I knew that sometimes lawyers became judges and that these judges ruled on many court cases each year. I knew that there was a Supreme Court, where nine justices who were(sometimes) very experienced and respected served lifetime appointments and made important decisions that impacted all of us.
Then I became an intern at Alliance for Justice (AFJ), and I have learned that the court system is essentially a complex web of judges across the United States who interpret the law and determine individuals’ civil rights in monumental ways. Alliance for Justice works to ensure a “fair and independent justice system” by advocating for highly qualified individuals with diverse backgrounds to be appointed to these courts. While the Supreme Court hears fewer than one hundred cases a year, the federal court of appeals, district courts, and local courts hear hundreds of thousands of cases. That is a lot of decisions that impact a lot of peoples’ lives. Furthermore, all federal court judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to serve lifetime terms, which gives the sitting president a lot of power.
While judges are supposed to be nonpartisan, this isn’t always the case. Increasingly, the appointment of judges has become a political tool that prioritizes ideology and political affiliation over qualifications and experience–a trend that puts the civil rights and wellbeing of millions of people in jeopardy. Furthermore, during Trump’s four years in office, only 16% of his judicial appointments were non-white and only 24% were women. The makeup of the federal judiciary, like any field of public servants, must represent the country in race, gender, ethnicity, professional background, sexual orientation, and so much more. To achieve this goal and to reverse the damage that has been done to the courts, AFJ tracks judicial vacancies, advocates for experienced and diverse nominees, and pushes the Biden administration to prioritize federal court appointments. The organization also works to identify highly-qualified lawyers with experience in civil rights, public defense, and other law backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in the courts.
As an outreach intern, I’m lucky to be able to engage in most of the aspects of work that AFJ does. I help build outreach lists for judicial nominee sign-on letters and connect with member organizations to engage them further with our work. I also spend a lot of my time researching our state courts, looking at the makeup of each state’s Supreme Court, learning when judges are up for reelection or retirement, and understanding the media landscapes of various states. The research I do now will inform where AFJ directs their time in 2022 and beyond, to ensure that our state courts, in addition to federal courts, are made up of experienced and diverse judges. Similarly, building outreach lists and connecting with member organizations and allies allows us to put pressure on the administration to appoint judges who represent the people they serve.
As courts at every level make daily decisions on environmental regulations, abortion access, LGBTQIA+ rights, checks on assault weapons, conditions for incarcerated individuals, and so much else, it feels so important to be doing this work. And as we do the work, we can see that the Biden Administration is listening.