Asian Americans were left off judge benches last year, employment data shows

Ftwitty | E+ | Getty Images
  • Asian Americans accounted for less than 0.1% of judges and similar workers, federal labor data shows.
  • It's a concerning statistic amid a rise in hate crimes, and underscores barriers to advancement within the legal field.

Asian Americans made up a miniscule fraction of judges last year, a jarring underrepresentation amid a rise in hate crimes coming out of the pandemic.

The racial group accounted for less than 0.1% of all judges, magistrates and similar judicial workers in 2023, despite making up nearly 7% of the American workforce, according to federal labor data. That means the iconic profession is not only drastically underrepresenting Asian Americans, but historical data shows the community isn't making up ground like other minority populations.

This is particularly harrowing amid a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, advocates say. While the federal data may shock those outside the community, it connects to a long-documented problem of those who have historically held power mentoring others who look like them. This creates a cycle which perpetuates exclusion and hampers advancement for Asians and other minorities.

"Asian Americans have gotten a foothold into every sector of the legal profession," said Goodwin Liu, a justice on California's Supreme Court who authored a major study on representation of the community in the field. "But where they struggle is with reaching the leadership positions."

This data may surprise those who don't follow the field closely, as Lance Ito, who retired in 2015, is one of the most well-known American judges after presiding over the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Yet there has never been an Asian American judge appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Concerns over a dearth of representation have made their way up to the Biden administration. A Washington Post analysis found Biden has appointed the most non-white judges of any president, and approximately 14% have been Asian.

Still, while annual data can vary widely given the nature of appointments and elections, Asians appear to be left behind in a push to diversify over the last decade. They're the only minority group that hasn't gained ground in the profession between 2013 and 2023.

To be exact, the community accounted for 0.1% in 2013 and less than that 10 years later. By comparison, Black representation jumped from 7.8% to 26.2%, while the percentage of Hispanic judges climbed from 6.3% to 11.2%. Over those years, the proportion of judges who are white fell from 85.8% to 72.3%.

To be sure, statistics on the overall law profession from the federal government and American Bar Association show somewhat better inclusion for the broader field. However, Asians are still underrepresented among lawyers at 4.4%, per the government data.

It's also worth noting that the share of Asian judges has jumped around over the past decade rather than moving in a straight line. The proportion has topped 6% in some years.

A 'small megaphone'

The study co-authored by Liu found a key challenge for Asian Americans in the field is advancement, which can keep them out of the highest positions. In this vein, data from the National Association for Law Placement showed that while people of color made up more than 28% of firm associates in 2022, the percentage of minority partners was under 12%.

Despite these obstacles, the pipeline to the broader legal profession offers reason for hope. The share of matriculants to law school who identify as either fully or partially of Asian descent climbed over the last decade, according to the Law School Admissions Council.

By both accounts, the proportion of Asian matriculants in 2023 was higher than the overall working population. That can allow the community to mitigate some of the gap left by historical underrepresentation.

For advocates of Asians in the field, this comes at an important moment. Hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. jumped with the pandemic, and are still elevated despite a decrease between 2021 and 2022, which is the most recent year of data available.

Liu pointed to prosecutor seats as a particular area of focus for improving representation given their roles in handling hate crimes. He also emphasized the need for continued awareness on the rise in hate and underrepresentation in judges, even as it becomes less talked about.

"Asian Americans have an incredibly, incredibly small megaphone when it comes to that," he said of prosecutors. "And that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of areas of underrepresentation."

Copyright CNBC
Contact Us