Monday, June 15, 2009

A lack of geographic diversity on the U.S. Supreme Court? What difference do "rural judges" make?

Douglas Burns offers this opinion on the Daily Yonder, arguing that the Supreme Court needs someone with rural roots/background/experience in order to be more representative of our nation. He notes that Justice Souter arguably provided that until now, and he also acknowledges Justice Thomas' early rural upbringing.

I haven't considered in any systematic way how attuned Supreme Court justices are to rural difference, but I looked at numerous judicial constructions of rurality in writing Rural Rhetoric (2006). And I examined judicial sensitivity to rural context in relation to three legal issues with particular import to women in Toward a Feminist Theory of the Rural (2007). I could also offer a few other random (and as yet unpublished) observations about judges and how they view rurality. For example, rural difference often gets mentioned in dissent, even when judges writing for the majority in the same case choose not to acknowledge the rural context at all. In addition, I've identified a few judges who seem to pick up on rural difference across a range of substantive issues, commenting for example on a decision's impact on rural populations, sometimes as a matter of policy.

In any event, my extensive survey of judicial decisions that use the word "rural" has led me to conclude that some judges are clearly more sensitive to rural realities than others, and this sensitivity influences their decision making. Whether this sensitivity is due to those judges' rural upbringings or some other rural exposure, I cannot say. But rural difference from what has become an implicit urban norm in law is often legally relevant--as I've often argued in my scholarship. I have no doubt that we need judges (including Supreme Court Justices!) who have a capacity to recognize that. Just as we need judges of color, women judges, and LGBT judges who are cognizant of the lived realities of these populations, we need judges who know something about rural realities or who, at a minimum, are open to learning about them.

No comments: