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Another Voice: No room for women on the judicial bench?

By Maria Scrivani

Another judicial opening, a new opportunity. If you are a white male, that is. That seems to be the way it works here in Western New York, where women in positions of power at the municipal government level and the top of the judiciary are few and far between.

Recent reports that Rep. Chris Collins is promoting yet another white male to fill a vacancy on the bench of the Western District of New York—two judges, Richard Arcara and William Skretny, have opted to move to senior status, with a reduced workload, and only one has been replaced in Buffalo, with Lawrence J. Vilardo filling the Arcara seat—I wondered where are the women? As a concerned citizen, I did some digging, and learned that they are out there—plenty of qualified female attorneys ready and willing to take on the workload of a federal judgeship.

The normal process is appointment by the President and confirmation by the Senate. These are lifetime appointments, and a federal district court judge can only be removed from office by impeachment. Buffalo is one of two branches in the Western District—the other is Rochester, where one female judge, Elizabeth Wolford, is the only woman ever appointed to serve since the Western District was established by Congress in 1900.

That’s a long time to wait for another one. And why, if you, like me, are not an attorney or involved with the legal system, does it matter what is the gender, race, or religion of our federal judges? I would say, especially considering the contentious times in which we live, diversity does indeed matter. In the case of federal judges, who rule on issues with immense real-world implications, it matters a great deal.

Among the cases that have been heard and decided by the judges of the Western District are the Buffalo school desegregation case, the Love Canal case against Occidental Chemical, the civil actions stemming out of the Attica uprising, and litigation over attempts by abortion opponents to block access to clinics by threats and intimidation. Federal courts routinely hear civil rights cases, constitutional violation cases involving official misconduct, and employment discrimination cases, including, by the way, those involving sexual harassment on the job, today’s hottest topic.
Think women judges might look at these cases differently? According to a recent report by the National Women’s Law Center, “The increased presence of women on the bench improves the quality of justice: Women judges can bring an understanding of the impact of the law on the lives of women and girls to the bench.” The bench should reflect the people it serves. When male cronyism prevails, the whole of society loses.

Maria Scrivani is a freelance journalist who has served on several boards.

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