Are Women Getting a Better Chance to Argue in State Appellate Courts? Like in Most of the Law, the Answer is “It Depends”

There has been a wealth of information recently on just how few women are getting opportunities to argue before the Supreme Court. Inspired by the fantastic piece done by Adam Feldman of Empirical SCOTUS (and @AdamSFeldman on Twitter) that looked at the dearth of women getting chances to argue before the nation’s highest court during the last 5 years (if you haven’t read Adam’s work, please take a minute and do that.  It’s fascinating stuff!), and Raffi Melkonian’s (@RMFifthCircuit on Twitter) look at oral arguments in the Fifth Circuit (the thread starts here), I started to wonder if the state appellate courts are a female-friendlier venue for high court appellate arguments.

Riding the coattails of the impressive work done by Adam and Raffi, I looked at how many arguments were done by women attorneys in the New York Court of Appeals during 2016. According to Adam’s piece, “if we look at all attorneys that have argued before the [Supreme] Court between the 2012 and 2016 Supreme Court terms (a total of 864 attorney arguments), females make up between 17% and 18% of the attorneys.”  For the Fifth Circuit in 2016, Raffi’s calculation also came out to about 17%.

Women argued in the New York Court of Appeals, on the other hand, approximately 37% of the time (136 arguments by women attorneys out of 372 opportunities).  That’s a significantly better rate than in the federal Courts of Appeals (assuming the Fifth Circuit is a good example) and in the Supreme Court. Of the cases that were argued before the Court of Appeals in 2016, there were 31 cases in which two women attorneys argued compared to 74 cases in which two men faced off.

Although the overall opportunities for women to argue in the Court of Appeals seem better than is seen in the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit, the total argument data masks a large divide in criminal and civil argument opportunities. When the arguments are broken down by case type, there was a much greater chance that women attorneys would argue criminal cases than civil cases.

In 2016, there were 188 attorneys who argued before the Court of Appeals in criminal cases.  89 of those attorneys were women.  That’s 47%.  The number of criminal cases in which both advocates were women was also largely equal to the number where both were men, 24 to 26.

For civil cases, however, the rate was much more similar to the rates seen in the federal appellate courts. The Court of Appeals heard arguments from 184 attorneys in civil cases in 2016, only 47 of which were women.  That’s 26%. Slightly higher than the Fifth Circuit and Supreme Court, but not significantly so.  The disparity in civil cases argued by all women versus argued by all men is even more stark.  While there were 48 cases with all-male arguments, the Court of Appeals heard only 7 cases in which the attorneys at the podium were all female.

Although this is just one year of data (and I may have to go back a few more years to see if these trends hold over time), the argument data suggests that women attorneys are getting better opportunities for appellate arguments in public interest avenues, like The Legal Aid Society, Appellate Advocates, or District Attorney’s Offices, than they are in typical private law firms.  Given the well-publicized difficulties in women advancement in law firms, the dearth of women arguing in civil cases is not surprising. But that’s certainly no excuse for the problem.

While it’s great to see the state high court appellate argument opportunities even out in criminal cases, much work still needs to be done on the civil side.  As Raffi said (and I can’t put it any better), “just a thought for those of us who assign cases, and for clients who decide who they want to argue[, g]ive someone else a shot.”

One thought on “Are Women Getting a Better Chance to Argue in State Appellate Courts? Like in Most of the Law, the Answer is “It Depends”

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  1. Rob,
    I think this is also symptomatic of a larger problem: firms don’t let young attorneys, who may be appellate geeks/experts, argue their own appeals. I briefed something in the Second Circuit-I knew the issues, left, right, center, backwards, and forwards. Second chaired the argument.
    If someone knows and understands what the hell they’re doing, they should argue the case, woman or man alike. To the extent “dues need to be paid”, pay them with minor appeals or appeals that don’t get argument. But, the opportunity to argue should be available to everyone, even if you’re six months out of school.
    Indeed, A.D.2. had no student practice permitting appellate oral argument. Massachusetts and Connecticut do. And, if I hadn’t left, I wouldn’t have had the chance to make my appellate debut in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
    But that’s just me.
    Thanks for elucidating.
    -Joe

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