WASHINGTON – In roughly 75 hours of arguments at the Supreme Court since October, only one black lawyer appeared before the justices, and for just over 11 minutes.
The numbers were marginally better for Hispanic lawyers. Four of them argued for a total of 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Women were better represented, accounting for just more than 17 percent of the arguments before the justices.
In an era when three women, a Hispanic and an African-American sit on the court and white men constitute a bare majority of the nine justices, the court is more diverse than the lawyers who argue before it.
The arguments that took place from October to April were presented overwhelmingly by white men. Women and minority lawyers whose clients’ cases were heard by the court were far more likely to represent governments or be part of public-interest law firms than in private practice, where paychecks are much larger.
The numbers generally reflect the largely white and male upper reaches of the biggest and richest private law firms, where there have been small gains by women and minorities in the past 20 years. A recent survey by the Association for Legal Career Professionals found that more than 93 percent of partners in law firms are white and nearly 80 percent are men.
The statistics from the court term, though, also reveal a lack of black and Hispanic lawyers in the elite Justice Department unit that represents the federal government at the Supreme Court.
The top supervisory positions in the Office of the Solicitor General all are held by men, although there are six women in the office who argued high court cases this term.
The office serves as a pipeline to the big firms that dominate the argument calendar at the court. Lawyers in the office make several arguments a term and acquire the experience and ease of standing before the justices that make them attractive to private firms.
The first woman on the court, Sandra Day O’Connor, touched on the importance of diversity at the court in a tribute to the first black justice, Thurgood Marshall.
O’Connor said Marshall imparted not only his legal acumen but also his life experiences, constantly pushing and prodding us to respond not only to the persuasiveness of legal argument but also to the power of moral truth.
The justices also benefit from seeing lawyers who don’t all look and sound the same, said Alan Jenkins, a black former Justice Department lawyer who has argued four cases at the Supreme Court.
It’s especially true of people who appear before the Supreme Court because the court, as an institution, is intentionally set apart from the day-to-day life of the nation, said Jenkins, executive director of the not-for-profit The Opportunity Agenda in New York.
The only minority group that could be said to be overrepresented was lawyers of Asian heritage.
Seven men three in private practice, Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan and two others at the Justice Department and a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union – made 17 arguments to the court. There has never been an Asian-American justice.
In cases before the Supreme Court, there are at least two and sometimes more parties who are granted time to argue their positions. In the current term, the justices heard 193 separate presentations.
When Debo Adegbile stepped to the lectern in defense of a landmark voting rights law in February, he was the first – and as it turned out, the only – black person to make a high court argument this term.
Lisa Blatt of the Arnold and Porter law firm in Washington has written that over the years most women arguing at the court have been public-interest lawyers, public defenders or government attorneys.
Translation: women are doing the same work but for less pay, she wrote in the Green Bag, a legal journal.
This term, Blatt made three arguments, the only woman in private practice to make more than one.
There were 10 men in private practice with multiple arguments.