Obama hopes to build on that diversity in his second term. Only seven of 36 nominations the president currently has pending are of straight white men. Compare that to the makeup of the roughly 780 judges currently active on the federal bench, where 425 are white men, according to the Federal Judicial Center. There are small percentages of minorities — 96 black judges, 70 Hispanic and 17 Asian.
In the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in St. Louis, a group called the Infinity Project was formed to promote more gender equality, with just one woman ever having been appointed to serve on the circuit. Executive Director Debra Fitzpatrick argues that a diverse bench enhances a court's legitimacy by reflecting the population on which it passes judgment.
"You can't always predict when and how and in what ways a person's personal experience will illuminate a case," Fitzpatrick said. She pointed to the case of an Arkansas prisoner named Shawanna Nelson convicted of check and credit card fraud who filed a lawsuit over being shackled to a hospital bed while in labor.
Nelson's attorney, Cathleen Compton, grew frustrated as she argued before the panel why her client, a nonviolent offender, didn't pose a flight risk that required shackling. "I'm a little disadvantaged here, or maybe it's you that are disadvantaged, because I've given birth and you haven't. I can tell you that a woman about to deliver a nearly 10-pound baby is not going anywhere," she said.
The appeals court sided with Nelson, in an opinion written by the sole woman among the 11 judges that heard the case, Clinton-appointed Judge Diana Murphy.
Two weeks ago, Obama nominated another woman, Iowa public defender Jane Kelly, to the 8th Circuit.
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