An April article from Fox News has brought new attention to a long-standing problem within the legal community, namely the shortage of Latino justices on our nation’s state supreme courts. As the 2010 Census numbers begin to be thoroughly analyzed, it is clear that the Hispanic population in the United States has grown exponentially once again, accounting for more than half of all U.S. population growth in the last decade. Latinos now represent 16% of the total population, or about 50 million people. However, they only make up 3% of the justices on state supreme courts, for an embarrassing total of 10 justices out of 326 nationwide, and only represent the courts of six states. Even more eye opening is the fact that the current number of Latino justices has only grown by four since 1990.
These numbers are troubling when considering the nationwide Hispanic population, but even more so in states like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Alabama, which have experienced some of the largest increases in Latino residents since 2000. Worse still is that, while six of the sitting Latino justices hail from Florida, New Mexico and Texas, there is still a serious lack of representation in other states that have traditionally featured the highest Latino populations. For instance, Arizona and California, which have Latino populations of 30% and 37%, respectively, currently have zero sitting Hispanic justices on their supreme courts.
The causes of this vary. Some cite the political processes by which new justices are seated, while others point to the lack of Latino attorneys and law students. The solution is simple, however, and was best explained by former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Joseph Baca when he said that the highest court of a state should look like that state. Especially as state courts begin to take on larger roles in determining policies, it is important that the viewpoints and experiences of their citizens are represented as best as possible. As Justice Baca put it, a more diverse court will not result in “a different decision… it’s a wiser decision.”