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Assuming Judge Samuel Alito Jr. is confirmed, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be the only woman left on the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, this diminished diversity on our highest court comes at a time when every other sector of society � business, government, the military, and education � proclaims the value of diversity. It is worth remembering that Harriet Miers was only the third woman ever nominated for the court in its more than 200-year history, and that Judge Alito is the presumptive heir to the seat long-occupied by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to break the court’s gender bar. Beyond that historic distinction, Justice O’Connor has had a pivotal influence in decisions affecting the rights of women, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor and other historically disfavored groups. It may be impossible to measure gender’s impact on judicial decision-making and court administration. But the public perception about whether judges are fair and equitable, and their decisions legitimate, depends in part on whether these judges embody the broad range of experiences and backgrounds of the diverse communities they serve. The late federal Judge Alvin Rubin described the importance of diversity on the bench as the “distinctive medley of views influenced by differences in biology, cultural impact and life experience.” It applies not just to women but to people of color. Justice O’Connor herself has reminded us how the personal experiences of the court’s first African American, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, came to inform her own views on matters of race. Women and minority judges are role models for younger members of the profession, and examples to the broader public of the many faces of judicial excellence. Studies suggest that women judges disproportionately promote important systemic changes, such as community and drug courts, innovative and inclusive administrative solutions, and eliminating barriers to the advancement of other women � and minority � judges. There is an indisputably qualified pool of women to consider for both the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. Highly distinguished women serve as chief judges of the Fifth, Ninth and Tenth Circuit U.S. Courts of Appeals and as the chief justices of 17 of the states’ highest courts. But it is not only on the Supreme Court that gains once thought irrevocable have proven evanescent. On the federal bench, 24 percent of judges are women. Only 20 percent of President Bush’s confirmed judicial appointees have been women, compared with 29 percent of President Clinton’s. While 24 percent of state judges are women, they tend to be concentrated in urban areas, and in lower courts with limited jurisdiction. In some states, like California and Michigan, their number is increasing. However, early gains are being reversed in others. Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski has named only one woman in his 20 judicial selections, reversing his five immediate predecessors’ impressive records and driving the percentage of women judges back to their 1988 levels. Similarly, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has included within his 25 judicial appointees only four women, threatening, as observed by a Boston Globe columnist, “to recast the judiciary as the white male bastion it once was.” Women have for too long championed the right to be free from gender discrimination to say that Judge Alito’s gender disqualifies him from a seat on the court. Nor should Justice O’Connor’s seat be viewed as a “woman’s seat.” This would mean that women might be limited to one or two seats, when rightfully they should comprise no less than half the court. If Justice Ginsburg is to become the only female sitting justice, however, her male colleagues must be especially vigilant on issues of gender equity that come before them. The Senate Judiciary Committee must closely scrutinize Judge Alito’s qualifications and life experiences, and especially his views on the court’s role in safeguarding the constitutional and statutory rights of women and those who are, in Justice O’Connor’s words, “at the bottom and the margins of the social order.” It is not enough, in other words, to be exceptionally skilled in legal analysis and writing. To earn this seat on the court, the nominee must have a firm sense of the forward motion of American democracy and the court’s role in upholding the freedoms and opportunities promised by our country’s Founders. The Committee should ensure a full and careful airing of Judge Alito’s views on longstanding Supreme Court precedents requiring “heightened scrutiny” for gender-based discrimination, broad interpretation of statutes and remedies protecting women and minorities from discrimination in education and employment and recognizing Congressional authority necessary to protect individual rights under the Commerce Clause. Without them, established protections against sexual harassment and domestic violence will be diminished, as will appropriately tailored affirmative action programs, and the right to privacy in areas including choice and contraception. Because women remain woefully underrepresented on the nation’s highest court, the Senate Judiciary Committee must closely examine Judge Alito’s views on the court’s role in protecting women’s full participation in every aspect of our society. The Committee must embody the voice of all women, whose rights now hang so precariously in the balance. Vanessa Ruiz is president of the National Association of Women Judges. She is a judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals..

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