Press Release, Report

Special Report: Judges with Labor and Economic Justice Experience Represent Just 6 Percent of Federal Judges

August 3, 2022

New AFJ report finds that corporate attorneys and former prosecutors dominate the federal judiciary, leading to unfavorable rulings for workers and consumers. 

Since 2011 alone, the Supreme Court has issued 7 decisions that have harmed an estimated 74 million working people and families.

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 3, 2022 – Today Alliance for Justice announced the release of a new special report entitled Economic Justice, Judges, and the Law, a first-of-its-kind analysis detailing the severe under-representation of lawyers with backgrounds in labor and economic justice fields among active federal circuit court judges. The report finds that, among active circuit court judges, 68% are former corporate attorneys, and 28% are former prosecutors. The report also notes that judges with these legal backgrounds are far more likely to rule against workers and consumers than judges with other forms of legal expertise. By contrast, only 6% of active circuit court judges have experience in labor or economic justice fields including union-side labor law, employee-side wage and hour law, consumer protection, and civil legal aid. 

“Our country is facing several major crises, including unprecedented wealth disparities,” said Jenny Hunter, labor attorney and primary author of the report. “We have to recognize that Republicans’ 50-year campaign to stack the bench with prosecutors and corporate-side attorneys has contributed to the courts’ hostility when it comes to the economic interests of everyday Americans. Correcting this deficit of judges who’ve served on behalf of those Americans is a crucial step to correcting these inequalities.” 

Of the dozens of diverse judges President Biden has nominated to the courts, only two circuit court nominees have had any experience in a labor or economic justice field. One, Judge Jennifer Sung, has been confirmed to serve on the Ninth Circuit, but four other active circuit court judges with economic justice backgrounds have announced that they will take senior status upon the confirmation of their successors, meaning that the number of economic justice judges is poised to decline. Currently, only 11 of the 171 active federal Court of Appeals judges have any experience in union-side labor law, employee-side wage and hour law, consumer protection, and civil legal aid.  

The special report also quantifies the harm from this dearth of economic justice experience on our federal courts. For example, just seven Supreme Court decisions since 2011 have caused economic harm to an estimated 74 million people, including workers, renters, pregnant people seeking abortions, consumers, and low-income people without health insurance. That includes causing an estimated 250,000 hospitalizations and 6,500 preventable deaths from COVID-19 since 2021, putting as many as 17 million working people at increased risk of eviction during a pandemic, and forcing 75,000 people to give birth in the next year, with dire economic consequences for themselves and their families.  

“President Biden has taken exceptional steps to add professional and demographic diversity to the federal bench, but there is still a significant gap when it comes to judges with backgrounds representing working people and consumers in their pursuit of economic justice,” said Rakim H.D. Brooks, president of Alliance for Justice. “With only 6% of current circuit judges having any experience representing the economic interests of workers and consumers, we have created a justice system where working people are far more likely to sit before a judge with experience union-busting or blocking consumer protections than someone with experience representing people like them.” 

To rectify this situation and minimize future harm to workers and consumers, Alliance for Justice is calling on President Biden to prioritize nominating more judges with backgrounds in economic justice legal practice. The Senate should then swiftly confirm these nominees to the bench so their influence can be felt as soon as possible.  

“The American people deserve a federal bench that stands for their rights and reflects the depth and breadth of their experiences, which is why I am proud to have recommended a strong, diverse array of nominees to fill judicial vacancies in Washington state and on the Ninth Circuit,” said Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). “Judges like Tana Lin and Lauren King have spent their careers standing up for the rule of law and justice for everyone, no matter their background. People should feel confident that they will not only have their day in court, but that they will be heard by a judge who values the rights of everyone — workers, women, immigrants, tribes — not just the wealthy and the powerful.” 

“It is abundantly clear that we need more judges on the federal bench that will protect the interests of American workers and consumers, not those of corporations and the privileged few,” said Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). “To combat the decades of insidious court-packing Republicans have partaken in, we need to confirm people to the bench who reflect the diversity of our country and have deep expertise in economic justice and labor.” 

“The legal system should be the bastion of freedom and justice for all, but too often it is used as a tool by special interests to undermine the rights of working people and of the vulnerable, be they people of color, women, or those in our LGBTQ community,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “The current extremist majority on the Supreme Court is the direct result of a 50-year campaign by the radical right to pack the bench with corporate apologists who favor their own political agenda over established legal precedent that reflects the will of the people. This trend extends throughout our legal system; as this report shows, many judges are predisposed to side with big business and less than 6% of circuit judges have any experience prior to becoming a judge in union-side labor law, employee-side wage and hour law, consumer protections, or civil legal aid.  Nominating lawyers who have grounded their legal careers in advocacy for working people, not corporations, is how we move forward and begin to remedy a legal system that favors the wealthy and well-connected and to build a more just, equitable, and fair system for all.” 

“No matter where we live, what we look like, or where we’re from, all Americans deserve equal protection under the law,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. “But too many times, workers find themselves in courts presided by judges who worked to advance the very corporate interests they’re up against, often resulting in an unfair and unjust federal judiciary. At a time when labor rights, public schools, educators, and their students are under attack, the need for experiential diversity on the federal bench cannot be overstated. We continue to urge President Biden to correct this gross imbalance of underrepresentation by appointing more judges with union-side labor law experience.” 

Click here to read the full report.