Federal and state judgeships held by women rose slightly this year to almost 27 percent, while some judicial districts in upstate New York and other parts of the country have virtually none, a new report shows.
Vermont was first at almost 40 percent, unchanged from a year earlier, and Idaho remained last at 11.3 percent.
New York ranks 12th among states in gender parity, having 39 federal and 374 state judges who are women, almost 31 percent of its total, up 1 percent and two places from the year before, according to the report from the Albany-based Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy.
"We are encouraged that at least we are seeing progress, but at the same time progress has been so slow and not consistent with the fact that we have enough women who are qualified to serve on the bench," said Dina Refki, executive director of the college's Center for Women in Government & Civil Society.
The source for the study's data was the 2011 edition of the directory "The American Bench: Judges of the Nation." In a legal profession once dominated by men, nearly half the U.S. law school graduates now are women, Refki said.
Other academic research shows that having in office people who are representative of all segments of the population increases trust in the judiciary and the government, according to the report.
"In many places in New York, especially upstate, it's an old boys' network," said State Supreme Court Justice Laura Jacobson, president of the New York chapter of the National Association of Women Judges.
Jacobson said she got elected first to civil court in Brooklyn, one of New York City's five boroughs, by getting petition signatures and without support of the political clubs. After 12 years on that court, she got elected with needed party support to the higher court.
American Bar Association research from 41 states showed women made up 31 percent of the U.S. legal profession last year but only about 15 percent of top partners at law firms.
"I think in terms of how women are doing, they're doing a little bit better in the judiciary than they're doing in private practice," said attorney Roberta Liebenberg, a partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia, who chairs the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession.
Albany lawyer Linda Clark said people want to know a judge's gender won't hurt them in court.
"I've definitely had clients that I know were concerned that as a female I may not have the same standing in the court system where all of the judges are male," she said.
New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman acknowledges that the courts need more women judges and that with the quality of the state's women lawyers, especially in Manhattan, New York should lead the nation in the number of women on the bench.
In New York, state trial court judges are elected. Federal judges get presidential appointments with lifetime terms subject to Senate confirmation.
While election petitioning arguably makes lower court ballots accessible, Refki said this essentially American phenomenon also depends on the conservatism of the region and raises fundamental questions about whether people want jurists who are politicians.
"The downstate cultural climate is very different from the upstate climate, I think, where you have conservative areas where women are not going to make inroads or minority candidates are not going to make inroads at the grass-roots level," Refki said. "Political campaigning is not really consistent with judicial neutrality."
New York's top court, the Court of Appeals, has a commission that first reviews candidates, then recommends a short list to the governor. That court has three women among its seven judges. Women had been in the majority on the court until Chief Judge Judith Kaye retired two years ago.
According to the American Judicature Society, proposals have been introduced in nearly every state to limit the role of politics in the selection of state judges but few have succeeded over the past 25 years. Following the heyday of reform in the 1950s through early '80s, more than half the states now have merit selection or appointment systems. However, even in states with judicial elections, about half the judges are interim appointees, and that's the likelier method for women or minorities to become judges, society Executive Director Seth Andersen said.
Three of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are women. Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the first, chosen by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Refki's report noted that 27 percent of state judges across the country are women, and nearly one-third of New York state judges are women. Some 23 percent of federal judgeships nationally are held by women, including 26 percent in New York.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called it "historic" in March when attorney Mae D'Agostino was confirmed 88-0 to be the first woman to be a federal judge in the northern district, which extends from Kingston to the Canadian border and west to Syracuse and Binghamton.
There are more than 260,000 lawyers registered in New York, but no gender breakdown is available. The New York State Bar Association has 35 percent women among its 77,000 members, spokeswoman Lise Bang-Jensen said.
Refki and many court reform advocates back merit selection. In New York, it would require state constitutional amendments and approvals by state lawmakers.
In the French judicial system, for example, potential judges take four-day written examinations, undergo 27 months of training and then take oral exams, Refki said.
"They're really professional judges who study how to be judges," she said. "That's what we need to focus on, not the political contests."