In a state with a large ethnic population, the vast majority of California judges, including those in Ventura County, are white men, although women and minorities have been making gains, according to a recent state report.
There were 1,677 judges in California last year, according to the sixth annual report from the Judicial Council of California, Administrative Office of the Courts. The report, released in March, shows that of those judges, 1,212 are white, 137 are Hispanic, 96 are African-American, and 94 are Asian. The rest are other races, listed more than one race or didn't provide information.
In 2006, 6.3 percent of California judges were Hispanic, while 8.2 percent were Hispanic last year.
The report also states that 68.9 percent are men and 31.1 percent are women. Women represented 27.1 percent of the judiciary in 2006.
Minorities account for 57 percent, or 22.3 million, of California's 37 million people, according to the census. Two-thirds of the minority residents are Hispanic.
Locally, a perceived slow pace of judicial appointments of minorities and women and lack of diversity on the bench led to the creation of the Ventura County Bar Alliance this year.
"There has been a lot of talk about it for a long time," said Jill Friedman, president of Women Lawyers of Ventura County.
The alliance, which is hammering out its mission statement, plans to do some lobbying and even arm-twisting in Sacramento, including going to the governor's office, Friedman said. It is launching a public awareness and advocacy campaign to draw attention to diversity in Ventura County Superior Court.
"There is a lack of diversity on the bench," Friedman said.
Friedman and her group belong to the alliance, which also includes the Mexican American Bar Association, the Ventura County Black Attorneys Association and the Ventura County Asian American Bar Association.
A spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown said the governor appoints the best-qualified candidates to the bench, including a pending judicial appointment to Ventura County Superior Court.
"Diversity is one of many factors that we consider," spokesman Evan Westrup said. "Our focus is to get the best possible judge in that seat."
There also is a vacancy for a justice for the 1st District Court of Appeal, Division 6, in Ventura, Westrup said.
Rennee Dehesa, president of the Mexican American Bar Association of Ventura County, said the bench should reflect the people in the community it represents. About 40 percent of Ventura County residents are Hispanic, according to census figures.
Diversity "increases the legitimacy of the judicial process in trying cases and making decisions," she said.
Ventura County's presiding judge, Vincent O'Neill, thinks ethnic and gender diversity on the bench is important.
"I think all judges have an effect on their colleagues, the way we approach issues and talk about things in-house, and the more diverse we are, the better that influence," O'Neill said.
Laurie Levenson, law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said diversity brings judges from different backgrounds and cultural perspectives to the bench.
"I think it is very important," she said.
However, Levenson said, diversifying the judiciary means more than "token representation" on the bench. People might trust the law more if they recognize that judges come from similar backgrounds, she said.
In Ventura County Superior Court, 21 of the 28 judges are men, state figures show. The county has one Hispanic judge. Two judges reported being more than one race, and one provided no information.
In 2011, there were 768 judicial applicants for the state's courts. Women made up 32 percent of the applicant pool and 33 percent of the 15 judicial appointments, Westrup said.
Nearly one-third of the 768 applicants identified themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian or American Indian or having other ethnic background, according to the data.
Westrup said he didn't know how many of the 768 applicants were from Ventura County because the number isn't broken down by county.
Brown's judicial appointees include minority judge Goodwin Liu to the state Supreme Court; Kathleen O'Leary, the first female presiding justice to the 4th District Court of Appeal, Division 3; and Raquel Marquez, the first Hispanic judge in Riverside County, Westrup said.
"There is still a lot of work that has to be done," he added.
O'Neill and Levenson said that includes increasing the number of minority law school students to increase the pool of qualified judicial applicants.
For the first time, the report includes sexual orientation. In the state, 57.7 percent of the judges say they are heterosexual, 1.1 percent say they are lesbian, and 1 percent say they are homosexual. The rest didn't provide the information or are transgender.
While the governor appoints superior court judges, commissioners are hired by the vote of the sitting judges, O'Neill said. Commissioners handle such cases as family matters and misdemeanors. Some see the position as a steppingstone to judicial appointment.
"We are always looking for the best-qualified person, but that's always in the eye of the beholder," O'Neill said. "There is no question that we are interested in diversifying the bench."O'Neill said several minority commissioners have been hired in Ventura County, most recently Dino Inumerable and Manuel Covarrubias, who is now the supervising juvenile judge.
"We have a great track record on diverse hiring of commissioners, in my opinion," during the past 20 years, he said.
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