Color of Justice: All-White Benches Persist in US District Courts

Jack Ruffin’s mother never wanted him to be a lawyer. As a Black man in South Georgia, he once told an interviewer, it would only put a bigger target on his back.

But Ruffin pursued the career anyway, and built a record fighting school segregation and winning acquittals for wrongfully accused Black southerners. That record landed him in 1979 on a list of prospective nominees for a federal judgeship in Georgia.

Instead, the nomination went to a White lawyer and former federal bankruptcy judge with ties to then-Sen. Sam Nunn.

And 44 years later, the Southern District of Georgia still has never had a Black judge.

Of the 94 federal district courts, 25 have never had a non-White judge, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis of federal court records. It’s not just an issue in the South: Fifteen states from the Northeast to the upper Great Plains have courts on the list.

Nowhere is the disparity more jarring than in Georgia’s Southern District, a venue that includes the cities of Savannah and Augusta and 43 counties that line the coast and pack the state’s southeastern corner. Nearly one-third of the district’s residents are Black, making it the most diverse of any judicial district that has only ever had White judges.

There aren’t any formal requirements to be considered for a federal judgeship; many trial court judges come from major law firms, US attorney’s offices, or were already judges in other courts before accepting the lifetime appointment. African Americans have historically been underrepresented in those jobs in coastal southern Georgia.

The backstory to that court’s all-White track record is also, like most, about timing and opportunity: A Democratic president hasn’t had a chance to fill a vacancy there in almost 30 years, and only 16 judges have ever occupied one of the bench’s three full-time seats.

Diversifying the federal courts was a hallmark of President Barack Obama’s tenure: Nearly a fifth of his judicial appointees were Black — and President Joe Biden already has topped that record. Both nominated Black judges to Georgia’s Northern District, anchored by Atlanta, or its Middle District, based in Macon — sometimes overcoming political gridlock to do so.

But the only active Southern District judge nearing retirement age is a Republican appointee, so the chances of Biden getting a vacancy to fill could be slim. Republican presidents generally have been less likely to appoint non-White federal judges, according to the Pew Research Center.

Ruffin, who died in 2010 at age 75, did break some barriers, becoming the first African American chief judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals.

But most Black lawyers in the region haven’t had the elite professional experiences and political connections that help elevate White lawyers to the US bench, local Black lawyers told Bloomberg Law. Others chalk up the absence of a Black federal judge to a lack of political will among the gatekeepers in the nominations process.

Either way, Black lawyers say it’s left a major deficit in the administration of justice on the court, at a time the ever-deepening political divide has amplified the power of a single district judge. Their rulings at the trial court level often lay the groundwork for high-profile battles over immigration, public health, criminal justice, and contentious social issues.

“I can explain all day long what it was like growing up in segregated Savannah,” said Lester B. Johnson III, a veteran Savannah lawyer and government attorney, “but it is not anything like living it and experiencing it and having the compassion to look at somebody who may have experienced something similar in a different setting and being compassionate about that.”

Video: Reporter Tiana Headley visited Savannah and Augusta, where Black lawyers spoke with her about how the South’s legacy of racial discrimination has affected the legal community.

Getting a federal appointment is akin to “capturing lightning in a jelly jar,” a friend once told Ed Tarver.

Tarver could relate.

He was born in Killeen, Tex., but his parents grew up just outside Augusta. The family returned there when he was a teenager, after living on Army bases around the world.

Neither of his parents attended college, but Tarver graduated from what was then Augusta College and, after his own stint in the Army, earned a degree from the University of Georgia’s law school.

In 1991, he became the first Black clerk to serve a federal judge in the Southern District. A year later, he was the first Black lawyer to join what’s now Hull Barrett, the oldest and one of the most prestigious law firms in Augusta.

That experience provided Tarver with one of his lasting memories. He was assigned to help a senior lawyer in a trial before Judge Horace Ward, an Atlanta-based jurist who was Georgia’s first Black district judge.

Addressing the lead counsel but referring to his young associate, Ward asked, “Well, I know that you didn’t bring this young man all the way from Augusta just to help you carry those litigation bags,” according to Tarver.

That night, the lead counsel assigned Tarver an additional five witnesses to question, giving him a more substantial role on the defense team, he said.

Tarver was elected to Georgia’s state Senate in 2005 and was two years into the job when a pair of state appellate judges visited his office and told him to consider applying for US attorney for the Southern District, he said. In 2009, Obama nominated him for the post — another first for a Black lawyer — and he was confirmed that year.

Ed Tarver is pictured with President Barack Obama when Tarver was a US attorney. Photographer: Andrew Satter/Bloomberg Law

When he got there, Tarver was struck by the lack of diversity among the 30 line attorneys in the office, which included only one Black woman. It was an issue he would work to improve during his roughly decade-long tenure.

“You can’t continue to just run the process the same way it’s been run the last 200 years and expect that you’re going to be able to accomplish some of the goals that you set for the organization,” Tarver said.

By the time Tarver stepped down in 2017, four Black assistant US attorneys had joined the staff.

For every step he made in his career, Tarver gained access to a new pocket of Georgia’s elite legal and political spheres. But he was often the only or one of the few African Americans in the room.

Roughly 56% of Augusta’s population is Black today, but its history is tortuous: Just blocks from a downtown statue of singer James Brown, who was raised in the city, stands a monument to Confederate soldiers. Fort Gordon near southwest Augusta was established in 1941 and named after Confederate Gen. John Brown Gordon. (It’ll be renamed Fort Eisenhower in October.)

A monument to confederate soldiers, erected in 1878, stands 76-feet tall above a main street in downtown Augusta. Photographer: Andrew Satter/Bloomberg Law

Members of the local Black legal community told Bloomberg Law they once saw Tarver as the front-runner to be the region’s first Black federal trial judge. The Obama appointee already had won the favor of the president.

But Judge William Moore Jr., who joined the bench under President Bill Clinton, took senior status — a form of semi-retirement — too late for Obama to act. Instead, filling the slot fell to President Donald Trump, who nominated Judge R. Stan Baker, a White US magistrate judge.

“The overwhelming reality was that even if a vacancy became available — and one did become available just as I was leaving — he wasn’t going to consider a Democratic appointee,” said Tarver, 63, who now co-leads an Augusta-based law firm.

Tarver said three factors — circumstances, opportunity, and preparation — need to align for potential nominees. “And for those positions, it’s very difficult,” he said.

The rising politicization of the judicial nominations process is partly to blame for why many district courts have never integrated, said Christina Boyd, a University of Georgia professor who researches judicial diversity. Republicans want reliable conservatives on the bench, and they tend to be White and male.

Beyond pure party politics, “predominately white politicians, whether the President or Senators, are the ones picking the judges,” John P. Collins, a George Washington University Law School professor who tracks judicial nominations, said in an email. “And for nearly all of our history, those politicians have been white men, and that’s who they likewise picked as judges.”

Black attorneys are visible these days in local government in Savannah and Augusta, but they’re largely absent in the region’s elite legal institutions — the pipeline that produced the Southern District’s most recent trial judges. Instead, Black lawyers have historically worked on civil rights, labor law, personal injury, or criminal defense — areas that typically don’t allow for the same sort of networking.

Black lawyers and judges in the region who spoke to Bloomberg Law also say fewer African American attorneys practice at the federal level compared to White lawyers. (The district doesn’t collect demographic data on the 6,377 attorneys admitted to practice before the court.)

Judge James Randal Hall, the chief judge of the Southern District, declined an interview request. In an email, he told Bloomberg Law he hasn’t heard from the legal community about the lack of African American representation on the court, adding it’s up to the president and the state’s US senators to diversify the bench. “The issue of diversity on our Article III bench can be achieved only through this political process,” he wrote.

That political process starts with the White House. But though the president gets credit for appointing judges, that process isn’t “always under his control at the end of the day, even in the nomination side,” said Christopher Kang, a former deputy counsel for Obama who worked on court nominations and helped to found the progressive judicial advocacy group Demand Justice.

Many federal judges leave the bench or enter semi-retirement only when a like-minded president is in the White House ready to replace them.

But it isn’t a hard and fast rule. And the president has to work with senators to identify potential nominees for trial court openings in lawmakers’ home states.

Those negotiations can get intense when the White House and lawmakers aren’t of the same party. The home-state senators can disrupt things for nominees by refusing to return the so-called “blue slip,” a blue form senators use to signal support for a federal nominee.

Obama appointed three of the seven Black district judges who now serve in Georgia’s Middle and Northern Districts—the most any president has placed there. And if a vacancy had opened up on the Southern District trial bench, Kang said, the Democratic president “would have done everything he could” to integrate the court.

Black lawyers such as Chad Mance reject the notion that jobs in the elite establishments make one more qualified for the federal bench, particularly among Black attorneys in south Georgia who’ve excelled outside of those rarefied spaces of the law.

“If they say that there aren’t enough qualified Black judges, the other side I’d suggest is: Have folks looked?” Mance, who also serves as the Savannah NAACP president, said. “Has the appropriate inquiry taken place? And I dare say that it probably has not.”

Savannah lawyer Chad Mance is president of the local NAACP. Photographer: Andrew Satter/Bloomberg Law

Johnson, the Savannah lawyer, recalled being told as a young man by a career counselor that “no law school in this country will ever” accept him.

He did get his degree and, over decades, has been a go-to government attorney — whether for the city of Savannah or the state’s Corrections and Transportation departments. He also partners with the same all-White firm that he says once wouldn’t hire him, as primary counsel for the local school board.

Johnson runs his own practice from a downtown Savannah building he shares with HunterMaclean, a largely White firm considered among the city’s best. On a shelf in Johnson’s office conference room is a photo of him with US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, his longtime friend and fellow product of Savannah parochial schools, whose path to the highest federal court included an appellate court appointment in Washington.

Another wall holds a framed newspaper clipping memorializing Johnson’s ascent to Savannah Bar Association president in 1996 — he’s the only African American to have held that post. The city elected its first Black mayor that same year.

He’s proud of his lifelong accomplishments, including helping the African American community maintain generational wealth through civil and probate law.

Still, he says, barriers remain for African American lawyers in Savannah. Few White-founded firms in the city hire Black talent these days, Johnson said.

And when he walks into federal court, he might see a Black attorney representing a Black defendant, Johnson said, “but when you look around, the bailiffs are White, the clerks are White, the judge is White, the jury for the most part is White.”

Lester B. Johnson III, a veteran lawyer, was the first and only Black lawyer to be named Savannah Bar Association president. Still, he said, barriers remain. Photographer: Andrew Satter/Bloomberg Law

Black lawyers interviewed by Bloomberg Law agreed that a courthouse without a Black judge was one missing an important perspective.

The deficit is exacerbated by the disproportionate number of Black criminal defendants in the Southern District of Georgia. At one point during Tarver’s tenure as US attorney, roughly 70% to 80% of the defendants charged by his office were people of color, he said.

Research is mixed on how a judge’s racial identity impacts their decision-making in criminal cases. Some studies have found that Black judges are more punitive, said Boyd, the University of Georgia professor.

On the other hand, Black judges aren’t a monolith.

“People are more complicated,” Boyd said.

It’s why Black lawyers like Mance aren’t content with “superficial” diversity. “Everybody from your community doesn’t necessarily represent the sort of interests that you want on the bench,” he said.

Tarver, the former prosecutor, said to avoid disproportionate harm to some communities, the justice system needs to reflect a diversity of life experiences and perspectives.

Collins, the George Washington law professor, said he expects more of the all-White US district courts will ultimately integrate their benches — and should. But he also said the pace of that change depends on their communities.

“District courts are local courts, and you have to work with what you have,” he said.

He pointed to South Dakota, one state without a Black or Native American district judge and with only Republican senators. There, he said, the White population actually grew from 80% to 85% between 2020 and 2022.

“The demographics are moving in the wrong direction,” Collins said. “I suspect the percentage of white lawyers is probably even higher.”

Biden had a path this summer to integrate one of the all-White district courts in New York, where Democrats hold both Senate seats. Instead, the president last week nominated a White lawyer, Colleen Holland, for a vacancy in the Western District of New York, where nearly 20% of the population is non-White.

In Georgia, the Democratic senators’ nominating commission — made up of current and former Black judges and civil rights lawyers — is ready if the Southern District does get a vacancy.

The task won’t be that difficult, said Francys Johnson, the former president of Georgia’s NAACP and the only commission member representing the Southern District’s region.

“I can name 12 Black lawyers who are qualified, who have the breadth of experience, who have the intellectual curiosity, and who are young enough to stay on the court for some time,” Johnson said.

Lisa Colbert became the first Black woman to win a seat on the Chatham County trial court. Photo courtesy of Lisa Colbert

Potential candidates also need to be convinced to take the chance.

Lisa Colbert has worked for almost 16 years in the state courts in the Savannah region, first as a Superior Court judge’s staff attorney and then a Chatham County attorney, before being named a juvenile court judge for the county. Even then, she didn’t consider taking the next step as a trial judge. She enjoyed making a difference in the lives of young people.

But a retiring Superior Court judge, who like Colbert is Black, saw potential in her and pressed her to run for his seat, she said. He wouldn’t stop until she saw it too — at one point calling her mother to make his case, Colbert said.

Three years ago, Colbert ran for election and became the first Black woman to win a seat on the county’s trial court.

“You have to have the little private cheerleader who says, ‘I see this for you, even if you don’t see it for yourself,’ ” she said.

Being the first to integrate an institution can be daunting, Colbert said. But when jurists such as Horace Ward make those strides, they light a path for others to follow, she said.

“It may inspire others to say, ‘Hey, we can do it now. This is possible,’ ” she said.

—With assistance from Nicole Sadek

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