Go to navigation (press enter key)Menu
Political Science
Project Proposal

Black in the American Courthouse: Black Judges and Representation in the 21st Century

Taneisha Means (Political Science)

Project Description

While Justice Sonia Sotomayor was eventually confirmed, and thus became the first Hispanic U.S. Supreme Court justice and the first racial minority female justice, her wise-Latina statement and the controversy surrounding her confirmation, raise profound questions for law and political science regarding the experiences and identities of racial minority judges, and their decision-making behavior. It also raises questions about what it means substantively to have increased racial diversity in the judiciary. Do, as Justice Sotomayor suggested, women and racial minority judges have unique experiences, and do these experiences affect their decisions and behavior? That is, should we expect racial minority judges to represent their racial group interests? While often implied by judges, my work as a whole engages these topics and addresses these questions by examining the experiences, identities, behaviors, and perceptions of racial minority judges. I argue in my work that only through research that considers the perspectives, identities, self-perceptions, and behavior of racial minority judges will we arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of the importance of racial diversity in the courts and for minority groups and communities.

I am currently working on a book manuscript focusing on black judges tentatively titled, “Race and Representation in the Judiciary: 21st Century African American Judges’ Backgrounds, Identities and Behaviors.” In this work, I employ mixed-methods—surveys and interviews primarily—to examine and better understand the backgrounds, identities, and behaviors of African American judges currently sitting in judgment on state courts. This summer I will make progress on the project by having interviews transcribed and developing a survey that will be fielded during summer and fall 2017. It is these two aspects of the larger project that I would like the Ford Scholar to help with. 

The work of the Ford Scholar will be divided into two parts. 

Part I: Survey Data
Given that black judges have not been surveyed, at least on a large scale, since the work of scholars during the early 1980s, I would like to survey sitting black judges in 2017. This will require the project be reviewed and approved by the Vassar College Institutional Review Board (IRB). We will also need to develop a survey questionnaire to be fielded, and we will need a sample of black state judges to be surveyed (and possibly interviewed in the near future).

Part II: Interview Data
I’ve already interviewed 30 black state judges. These interviews, which were recorded, need to be transcribed. Once transcribed, the interviews can be analyzed using NVivo.

Anticipated Project Activities

The summer Ford Scholar will engage in the following activities with Professor Means:
First, planning; reading and discussing some of the relevant research on racial group consciousness and racial identity to develop an understanding of the topic (1st week).
Second, designing a short survey instrument to be fielded to black state judges during the 2017-2018 academic year; submitting IRB Proposal (2nd week)
Third, transcribing thirty interviews with black judges (3rd week – 5th week). 
Fourth, learning, and then using, NVivo (a qualitative data analysis software), and organizing, and beginning preliminary analysis, of interview responses (6th week).
Fifth, identifying and contacting a number of black judges who might be surveyed, and possibly interviewed, in 2017 (7th week). 

Finally, preparing packets and sending surveys out to black judges; creating presentation based on data analysis and research experience (8th week).

Preferred Student Qualifications and Skills

  • High professional and personal motivation, self-management, and attention-to-detail 
  • Strong ability to take responsibility in meeting deadlines and making progress with and without direct supervision 
  • Willingness to learn new software (e.g., NVivo) and research methods (e.g., designing surveys, and collecting, studying, and evaluating qualitative data)
  • Strong existing computer skills with Microsoft Office
  • Strong interest in the project and social science research generally 
  • Interest in mentoring and professional development

Anticipated Follow-up Teaching/Professional Activity for Student

To demonstrate the synergy that can exist between teaching and research, the Ford Scholar and Professor Means will work together to create a presentation using the qualitative data for the Fall 2017 POLI 346 seminar, “Race and Gender in Judicial Politics.” Additionally, the Ford Scholar will be invited as a guest speaker to the seminar to present some of the research findings and to share their research experience.

Project Location

Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY

Project Duration

Eight weeks

Project Start Date

June 1, 2017

Project End Date

July 31, 2017