Supreme Court Justices discuss their roles as women judges

By Lori Atherton

The Hon. Judith E. Levy had been on the job as a federal judge for eight months when she realized she could count on one hand the number of women who had argued a motion before her.

“It was four or five women, and that was with hearing two or three motions per week,” said Levy, who serves on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. “Women are not present in litigation at the federal trial court level.”

Nor are they present on the federal bench in numbers that reflect full equality, Levy added. “About 33 percent of trial court judges are women, and there are still six judicial districts that have never had a woman serve as a judge.”

There is also a low percentage of women serving on Supreme Court benches, noted Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, who said, “I want all practitioners—whether young or old, women or men—to see women on the bench as being normal.”

McCormack and Levy shared their experiences of serving as women judges during a Feb. 17 talk at Michigan Law facilitated by Professor Eve Primus and sponsored by the American Constitution Society.

Levy said diversity on the bench is important, because cases can have different outcomes based on the judges’ experiences. As an openly gay married mother of three, Levy said her experiences are different from those of a straight male judge.

“Male and female judges might view evidence differently based on their life experiences. For example, a male judge might view certain evidence as a ‘mere scintilla’ and I might see that evidence as being more probative,” she said. “It might result in the case surviving summary judgment and going to a jury.

“I do everything I can to bring my whole self to the bench,” Levy added, “because that’s the only way I’m going to understand all the dynamics going on the courtroom.”

Both McCormack and Levy shared anecdotes about male lawyers they met who had difficulty comprehending that they are judges. They don’t let those encounters, however, hinder the work they do, nor do they take any special steps to ensure that others see them as judges rather than as female judges.

“I don’t do anything differently,” McCormack said. “I just work hard, write the best opinions that I can, and be a good colleague to the other justices on the bench so that they are pleased that I’m there. I just do a good job.”
Reprinted with permission from U-M Law School