The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals used to be the least diverse in the country. But the leaders of the Infinity Project are hoping to change that.
In April of last year, the U.S. Senate voted 96-0 to confirm Jane Kelly as a judge on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. But out of the 62 judges who have served on the Eighth in its entire history, Kelly is only the second woman. The first, Diana Murphy, was confirmed 20 years ago, and since her confirmation the last nine judges chosen have been men.
That record is why Lisa Brabbit, Marie Failinger, and Judge Mary Vasaly started the Infinity Project in 2007. With president Jeanette Bazis, an attorney at the Minneapolis firm Greene Espel, and executive director Debra Fitzpatrick, the leaders of the Infinity Project coordinate the efforts of lawyers, judges, and academics in the seven states that make up the Eighth Circuit to promote gender diversity on the bench.
“We are helping to create a good climate for decision-makers to remember to factor in diversity when they are choosing among well-qualified candidates, and for the public to acknowledge the importance of diversity in achieving the most qualified candidate pool and the best justice possible in the Eighth Circuit,” said Brabbit, Senior Assistant Dean for External Relations and Programs at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.
To further that goal, Brabbit, Failinger, Vasaly and Bazis coordinate CLE events that call attention to the lack of gender diversity on the bench, such as “Celebrating Women Pioneers in Minnesota’s Judiciary” and “Taking Action to Increase Equality: A Conversation among Bench and Bar.” Vasaly, a Hennepin County District Court Judge, explained that some of these events demystify the process of being considered for and eventually elected to the bench.
“The goal is not only to educate the public and the profession but also to encourage and help women who want to get on the bench,” she said.
They also try to educate policymakers individually about gender diversity. “We’ve put a little pressure on senators from the various states, and asked them to appear and make statements of support for gender diversity on the bench,” said Failinger, a professor at Hamline University School of Law.
The group also works to improve the visibility of female candidates for magistrate and district judge seats. Bazis explained that the goal is to create a pipeline of qualified contenders from lower courts so that there are always qualified female candidates when seats on the Eighth Circuit open up.
None of the women is willing to take credit for Kelly’s selection, not least because Kelly’s qualifications were superb. But they hope that what they and the other Infinity Project volunteers do is helping the Eighth Circuit to have options that include both women and men. “If decision makers are tuned-in and aware and we support and encourage highly qualified women, then we can have an outcome like Jane Kelly – who in her own right, unrelated to Infinity, deserves to be where she is on the merits,” Brabbit said.