As a woman, an attorney, a mentor of young women attorneys, and a resident of Juneau, I read with acute interest retired Judge Elaine Andrews' commentary in Alaska Dispatch News on May 3, advocating for the governor to appoint a woman to replace retiring Alaska Supreme Court Justice Dana Fabe, the only female justice now serving on our five-justice state Supreme Court.
The decision about who should replace Justice Fabe (or any justice, for that matter) is a complicated one that I'm personally glad I'll never need to make or be a part of.
In this particular round, geographic representation on the court weighs in favor of an appointee from Southeast Alaska. The only applicant from that region (and the only applicant I know) is a white man I happen to believe is highly qualified for the job. One female contender is from Fairbanks and the other from Anchorage, as is the other male applicant. There are no applicants of color, which of course is another issue on which even more ink could be spilled.
Although I feel an allegiance to Juneau, I also admit to sharing Judge Andrews' apprehension at the prospect of an all male Alaska Supreme Court. I agree with her that such a bench would certainly not reflect the state's demographics. And it might not necessarily bring the varying perspectives required for well-rounded and thoughtful adjudication of cases that come before the court, which takes appeals as of right from everyone from low-income, self-represented parents to corporate executives.
The superior court is Alaska's trial court of general jurisdiction, and there are currently 42 superior court judges in the state. Over a decade ago, I clerked for the first female superior court judge appointed here. A quick exploration of the Alaska Court System website reveals that nine of the current superior court judges are women, which is 21 percent. The criminal court of appeals -- Alaska's only intermediate appellate court -- has one female justice out of three, approximately 33 percent. The percentage of women on the Alaska Supreme Court would be 0 percent or 20 percent, depending whether a woman ultimately fills the vacancy left by Justice Fabe.
Given the far higher percentages of female bar members and law school graduates, it's a mathematical fact that women are underrepresented in Alaska's judiciary, as they are in many judiciaries nationwide. There are complicated reasons for that, but regardless of the reasons, I agree with Judge Andrews that striving for gender equity on the bench matters, in Alaska and elsewhere.
One of the comments on Judge Andrews' commentary posed an interesting question: "How is it not sexism to ask for an appointment based on sex? No different than saying 'we need a (insert race here) to the Supreme Court' would be racism, right?"
Allegations of "reverse sexism" (or "reverse racism" for that matter) are common, but they are specious straw men. Oppression is the sum of privilege and power. As compared to men, women do not occupy a position of privilege and power in our society, and especially not in the legal profession. So they cannot act as oppressors "reverse oppressing" men.
Rather, women are ever-scrambling upwards -- as they have since well before suffrage -- simply to be equal and safe. Equal and safe in the home. Equal and safe in the workplace. Equal and safe in public spaces. Attempts to rectify those systemic inequities and demand literal and figurative safety are not "reverse sexism." Labeling them as such silences the voices that challenge privileges belonging to people often unaware they are privileged in the first place.
If my friend from Southeast gets the job, I will celebrate that and be thrilled for him and the state, because I think Alaska will be getting a great jurist. If a qualified woman I don't know gets the job, I will celebrate that as a female attorney. Either outcome would feel like a win-win to me. But as Judge Andrews argues, it could well be a loss for Alaska to no longer have even one female voice on our state's highest court.
Libby Bakalar is an attorney with state Department of Law in Juneau, freelance writer and author of the blog One Hot Mess, where the preceding commentary was first published. It is republished with permission. She is writing here on her own behalf, not on behalf of the Department of Law.
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