Infinity Project targets U.S. Eighth Circuit's male bastion.
Two quite different U.S. Supreme Court anniversaries occur this month.
Thirty years ago, the first female justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, took her seat and began an acclaimed 25-year career on the high court.
Twenty years ago, Justice Clarence Thomas was sworn in amid abiding controversy over his former coworker Anita Hill's confirmation-hearing testimony about his unwelcome sexual advances.
The mixed messages for women in the legal profession that arise from the O'Connor and Thomas stories were recalled last week as the Infinity Project convened at the University of St. Thomas to consider how best to advance its cause: gender diversity on the bench.
The Minnesota-based project's focus is on seating more women on the seven-state U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, where male dominance is an embarrassment.
In the court's 120-year history, 61 judges have been appointed. Only one, Minnesotan Diana Murphy, has been female. She was appointed in 1994.
No other U.S. appellate court has been such an exclusive male club. But all is not well for women on other courts, or in the legal profession generally. A mixed message persists.
For more than two decades, women have comprised roughly half of the graduates of U.S. law schools. But as the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession reports, women hold only a quarter of state judicial seats and 22 percent of U.S. federal court judgeships.
In Minnesota, it's slightly better. Women hold 30 percent of both federal and state court positions, the Infinity Project reports.
The national picture is also skewed in Fortune 500 corporate legal offices, where only 19 percent of the attorneys are women, and in private practice, where 19 percent are partners. In the nation's 200 largest law firms, only 6 percent of managing partners are women, according to a 2009 study.
Those gender gaps ill befit a profession that exists to uphold equal treatment under the law. They are especially inappropriate in multijudge appellate courts.
As retired state Supreme Court Justice Esther Tomljanovich attests, female judges bring to those panels backgrounds and experiences that differ from those of male judges, yet are just as valid and relevant to the administration of justice.
When women are not present, the view of the world from those judicial chambers is incomplete. Much the same can be said for minority-race judges, who are also underrepresented on the nation's courts, the Brennan Center reported in 2010.
The Infinity Project's focus is on boosting female representation on one 11-member appellate court. But its approach ought to have bigger impact.
Through events like last week's St. Thomas conference, it is raising awareness that gender inequality persists in the courts, despite the breakthroughs of a generation ago. Infinity's members recruit and offer to mentor promising judicial candidates.
To its credit, the project emphasizes that qualifications, not gender, should matter most in judicial appointments.
Infinity leaders say they are confident that if merit, not politics and cronyism, drives the decisionmaking, women will win their fair share of federal judicial appointments.
We think they are right.
But knowing that 30 years have passed since Justice O'Connor took her seat, we'd advise Infinity to plan to keep sounding off about gender equity in the courts for years to come.
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