Minority Women on the Bench: Judge Bolin’s Legacy

We recently noted the passing of a legal pioneer, the Honorable Jane Bolin, who died in January, at age 98. As the nation observes Black History Month, it seems particularly appropriate to reflect on her inspiring legacy in the legal profession.

When Bolin donned judicial robes for the first time in 1939, upon her appointment by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, as a judge on the New York Domestic Relations Court, it marked a milestone in the American justice system: A door had been opened, not only for African-American women, but for other minority women as well. For the first time, an African-American woman, attuned to the issues and concerns of women and minorities, had the opportunity and the judicial authority to effect change.

Bolin's judicial appointment was, in fact, the culmination of a lifetime of "firsts." She was the first African-American woman to graduate with a law degree from Yale Law School, in 1931; the first to be admitted to the New York State Bar; and the first to serve as an assistant corporation counsel of the New York City Law Department.

During her 40-year tenure as a judge of the court now known as the Family Court of the State of New York, Bolin presided over a myriad of cases involving children and families, concerning issues such as spousal abuse, child neglect, adoption, alimony and juvenile crimes, including homicide. As a judge, she remained acutely aware of the role that race played in the legal system. In her judicial role, Bolin brought about two enduring reforms to New York's legal system: the elimination of racial and religious considerations in the assignment of probation officers to cases, and a requirement that private child-care agencies -receiving public funds accept children regardless of their race or ethnicity.

If it had been up to her, Bolin would have continued adjudicating family matters long past the mandatory retirement age of 70. Following her retirement from the bench, and consistent with her unwavering commitment to improving the lives of children and families, she taught as a volunteer in New York City public schools, and later reviewed disciplinary cases for the New York State Board of Regents. Throughout her life and career, Bolin remained a zealous advocate for equal justice, and viewed herself as a "guardian of all children in need."

Nearly 70 years have passed since Bolin's historic appointment to the Family Court of the State of New York, but women, and particularly minority women, still find themselves under-represented in the state and federal judiciary. For non-African-American minority women, the numbers are, predictably, even smaller and their appointments more recent.

Barriers still exist

The qualifications for a judgeship, generally, require considerable legal experience. One traditional occupational path to obtaining a judgeship is through private legal practice. Minorities, however, are generally less likely to launch their careers in private practice, and more typically begin their careers with public interest and government jobs.

A growing percentage of minority lawyers are women (44% in 2000), and as the legal profession continues to become more diverse, it will become increasingly important to eliminate barriers that minority women report facing. Law firms should also continue to strengthen their focus on professional development of minority women in particular.

Bolin showed that minority women can make a profound contribution to the U.S. legal system if given the opportunity. If others are to follow her path, they must be given the chance to gain the experience they need to advance in the profession, especially if they are in a position to merit consideration for appointment to a judgeship. Firms need to be willing to give their minority female attorneys the chance to excel, and provide them with the support they need.

Recently, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr. predicted that the highest court will eventually be composed of at least as many female justices as male justices, echoing a hope expressed by the court's only female justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that it would gain more female justices. We can only hope that minority women will be among the future justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Bolin demonstrated that minority women can make a profound contribution to the U.S. legal system, if given the opportunity.

Kenneth G. Standard is a member of New York-based Epstein Becker & Green and is chairman of the firm's diversity -committee. He is a former president of the New York State Bar Association and chairman of its Committee on Diversity and Leadership Development. He is also a member of the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. Nazneen Malik is second-year law student at Pace University School of Law.

Reprinted with permission from the February 26, 2007, edition of the "National Law Journal" © "National Law Journal 2007" ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

Resources