By Jeunesse Rutledge
Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren
Female judges from the country of Georgia recently visited Milwaukee to learn more about the U.S. judiciary, particularly to learn about how women support each other in the legal profession, to observe courtrooms in action, and to learn about how the law affects the lives of women and how it has advanced or hindered equality in the U.S.
The judges were also interested in how U.S. judges are elevated to the bench and what steps can be taken to retain women in law so they can advance to the judiciary. To this end, the judges met over the course of three weeks with various judicial groups and legal associations throughout the country.
The Georgian judges who visited are seated at a number of levels of the judiciary, up to and including the Georgian Supreme Court.
Unlike their American colleagues, Georgian judges are appointed at every level, resulting in a judiciary that is 51 percent female and that better reflects the country’s population. In the U.S., women make up just over half the population but occupy only a third or fewer of judicial seats at the state and appellate levels and have held only four of the 112 Supreme Court Justice positions to come open in the 243-year history of the United States. In Wisconsin in particular, only about 24 percent of judges are female, according to the National Association of Women Judges.
Last month, on behalf of the Association for Women Lawyers, or AWL, Patricia Jenness and I took part in a Q&A with our Georgian colleagues about Wisconsin women in law and the judiciary. The conversation was organized by the International Visitor Leadership Program, a program of the U.S. State Department, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of International Visitors. Through the program, also known as the IVLP, the International Institute of Wisconsin brought the Georgian group to Wisconsin to meet judges, lawyers, and local bar associations and further develop an understanding of the judiciary in our state.
Established in 1940, the IVLP is a professional exchange program that lets people like the Georgian judges come to the U.S. to meet American professionals in corresponding fields. IVLP works with local volunteer partners to provide valuable and mutual learning experiences. As the only such organization in Wisconsin, the International Institute of Wisconsin puts on local programming for IVLP by connecting visiting delegations with groups such as AWL.
IVLP initially reached out to AWL largely because of AWL’s largest event of the year – Women Judges’ Night. AWL’s Women Judges’ Night is held every year to celebrate and recognize women who serve on the bench. AWL will hold its 40th annual Women Judges’ Night on Feb. 27. IVLP was also interested in AWL’s programs designed to assist women in their goal to get to the bench. AWL refers to its push to bring equality to the bench mentoring as “Closing the Gavel Gap.”
Our visitors were particularly interested both in the U.S. electoral process and in establishing a group in Georgia similar to AWL. They wanted to know how different groups and organizations can work with women to retain female lawyers and elevate them to the bench.
The judges also had questions related to campaign finance and the electoral judicial process. Particularly, the judges were interested in learning how funding affects impartiality on the bench. Because Georgian judges are appointed, our funding and donation process was particularly of interest to the judges, who asked about recusal rates, among other things. Lastly, the judges had various questions related to voter turnout for judicial elections and the politicized election process.
What was perhaps most interesting for both Patricia and me was learning that, even though women occupy 51 percent of bench seats in Georgia, the judges we met were concerned that they did not have a strong voice generally. In other words, although most of these women have been on the bench for several years in positions of power, they still felt as if they weren’t receiving their due.
According to the World Bank Group, only 16 percent of Georgian lawmakers are female, so attracting and retaining women in law is central to leveling the playing field in the young country; the Georgian Constitution is only about 20 years old.
Our conversations with our Georgian colleagues were lively, even through an interpreter, but often one-sided. Because the Georgian judges were very interested in us and had many detailed questions, we were unable to learn as much as we would have liked regarding the Georgian legal system and how to attain a bench with balanced representation. We provided detailed answers to their questions but unfortunately hadn’t much time to ask questions of our own.
It was a wonderful and enlightening way to spend the morning, and judging from our conversation with them, we think the U.S. could learn a lot from the Georgian system as well; not only about ways to get more women on the bench but also about policies related to parenting in the profession (parents in public Georgian positions get one year of maternity leave with the option of extending it by six months). Patricia and I, along with AWL, would appreciate an opportunity to continue this conversation, which can only help the goals of both AWL and our Georgian visitors: keeping women in law and helping them get to the bench at a greater rate.
Jeunesse Rutledge is treasurer of the Association of Women Lawyers and an associate at Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren. Patricia Jenness is immediate past president of AWL and a partner at Michael Best & Friedrich.