View of legal system better with women in high places

March 26, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

AFTER GRADUATING from Goucher College in 1941, Phyllis Kravitch became a lawyer with a degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

But no firm would hire her and no judge would give her a clerkship -- because she was a woman.

So she went home to Savannah, Ga., and if her daddy hadn't had his own law firm there, she might still be looking for work.

It was a time in Georgia when there were no women on juries, let alone on the bench. But after a respected career not only defending women and minorities, but also seeing to it that they were treated with dignity as plaintiffs and witnesses, she was elected the first woman Superior Court judge in Georgia in 1976.

Three years later, President Carter appointed her a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, just the third woman at that level.

"It is hard to believe, but women in any significant numbers have only been on the courts for 15 years," said Judge Kravitch during a recent symposium at Goucher.

Today, Judge Kravitch tells a different story to illustrate the place of women in the law.

The 5-year-old daughter of her female law clerk, a frequent visitor the judge's chambers, was playing "what do you want to be?" with some friends. Katie declared that she wanted to be a judge. But when a neighborhood boy declared that he wanted to be a judge, too, Katie ran to her mother, demanding that she tell the boy that only girls can grow up to be judges.

What Katie sees when black-robed Judge Kravitch takes her seat above everyone else in the courtroom is a symbol, a role model, a possibility.

That is how our society, too, has viewed the exploding number of women and minorities on state and federal benches. As examples of our equal opportunity. As points scored in the game of affirmative action.

And legal scholars have pointed, proudly, to studies that show that there is virtually no statistical difference in the outcomes of cases adjudicated by women and minority judges.

Ex- cept in the areas of rape, domestic violence, domestic law, bias, discrimination and harassment, where women and minority judges are credited with setting a new standard of responsiveness.

What a coincidence. Rape, divorce, custody, support, discrimination. Just the kinds of life experiences women and minorities know too well.

But these are also just the kinds of life experiences that we ask a judge, any judge, to put aside when she adjudicates the facts of our case.

"Are there differences in the way women and minority judges perform? And is this a good thing or a bad thing?" asked Sherrilyn A. Ifill, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and a panelist with Judge Kravitch at Goucher that day.

"It would be ignorant not to recognize that women and African-Americans tend to come to life with a very difference set of experiences than white men," Ms. Ifill, who is black, said in a conversation after her appearance at Goucher.

"And those experiences shape not only your perspective, but your rational thought process. You think differently."

Ms. Ifill referred to the ready example of the O.J. Simpson case. If you are black and you know someone who is black and who has been the victim of a white cop's treachery, it is not a flight of fancy, a crazy notion, for you to believe that Mark Fuhrman planted a bloody glove in Simpson's yard.

"That might sound perfectly rational to an African-American. But what do you do with those experiences once we ask you look at a set of facts and judge them impartially? How much of that will we permit in the decision-making process before we become uncomfortable?"

We do not want our women judges and our black judges settling old scores, but neither can we expect them to be just numbers on somebody's quota sheet.

What we get from women and minority judges -- what we should relish -- is the perspective they bring from their life experiences.

"It is one of the perks of diversity," said Ms. Ifill.

It is ironic that while we might be delighted to learn that the judge in our bankruptcy hearing had been a corporate lawyer, we might be dismayed to learn that the judge in our sexual harassment suit is a woman.

What we call expertise in one judge, we might fear as prejudice in another. While we are asking one to apply everything he has ever learned to our case, we hope that another will put aside all she has experienced and apply the law as a microchip might.

The flip side is also true, however. We need not assume that a white male judge cannot decide a sexual harassment or racial discrimination case. The fact that he is surrounded in his courthouse with women judges, lawyers and clerks and minority judges, lawyers and clerks means that, if he is an intelligent white male, he is more likely to check his bigotry at the door.

"Women judges have been very helpful in understanding issues of custody and alimony in a deeper and more complex way and have been in the forefront of changes in this area of the law and also in defining harassment," said Ms. Ifill.

But remember, she says, the seminal cases of our time -- Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade -- have been decided by men. And it was the federal judges in the South -- the white sons of privilege -- who made sure the civil rights laws were enforced.

I do not have the right to a woman judge, and Ms. Ifill does not have the right to an African-American judge. Those who live in our very separate worlds are not the only ones who can adjudicate life in these worlds.

"But the system that holds my fate should be one in which the diversity of the community is represented," Ms. Ifill said. "We have a right to expect that."

Pub Date: 5/26/96

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